CUSTOMERS complain, you can't escape from it. If it is your job to reply to customer complaints, you will know what a challenging task this is. However, a complaint gives you the opportunity to achieve service recovery, improve customer relations and build better levels of customer loyalty. So from this perspective, isn't a complaint a gift?

Replying to customer complaints gives you a chance to put matters right. You can investigate what happened to cause the difficult situation, apologise for mistakes, explain the results of your investigations and the actions taken, and take steps to repair the relationship.

But it is not so simple when you have to put it all in writing. Here are some rules to remember when writing to unhappy customers.

Say something new

Many people make the mistake of emphasising what the customer already knows and does not want to hear again. As an example, suppose a customer wants to exchange an item, but the exchange period is over, and the sales assistant has already told the customer about this.

If the customer writes to asks you to re-consider, would you reply with something like "Our policy states that no exchanges are allowed one month after the purchase"? Why not consider starting with, "Although your purchase was made more than one month ago..."? You can continue by telling the customer that yes, you can do something, or no, there's nothing you can do.

Think clearly

Sometimes a solution to the customer's problem can be offered. All too often, however, the writer does this and nothing else, and does not acknowledge the frustration the customer may have felt, or apologise for the inconvenience. This happens when you write without a clear objective in mind, and without consideration for the customer's feelings.

Let's look at the example above. On the surface, it may appear that the customer is merely looking for an extension to an exchange period. However, if the customer was upset in the store, and the reply making the extension offer makes no mention of this unhappiness, then the customer may exchange the item and never visit the store again.

So look beyond the surface to see if there are more significant objectives you need to meet in your writing. Empathising and acknowledging feelings is very important when replying to complaints.

Watch your tone

Do not fall into the trap of using recycled, old-fashioned and pompous phrases. For example, consider this very common opening phrase: "I refer to your feedback of..." How friendly can that be? Compare that with "Thank you for your feedback of..."

Also, many people have a habit of writing as if they are in a hurry. So instead of "Thank you for sending us the receipt for...", they write "Rec'd w thks." We should not forget professionalism and the correct use of language, especially when writing to external customers.

With any written message, the only tools you have to set the tone are words and phrases, unlike face-to-face interactions where you have body language and eye contact to help you. Time spent crafting your written message appropriately will be time well spent.

Use the right style

When you are writing to unhappy customers, use a more formal style to show that you are treating the situation seriously and with respect. Do not try to use an informal and over-familiar style. A common pitfall is to use a mix of formal and informal styles in the same message, resulting in inconsistency. Often, this is a result of using old-fashioned and pompous phrases in some parts of the message, and short, curt and sms-style phrases in other parts.

Enhance your message's readability by using clear, concise sentences, short words and plain English,and write in active voice instead of passive.

Unhappy customers want to find a solution or explanation in your message; they don't want to spend time sifting though complex information.

If you take time to empathise with unhappy customers, and explain the situation or proposed solutions clearly and professionally, you will increase your chances of turning unhappy customers into happy ones.

When you deal with a complaint appropriately and professionally, it is a gift that will drive you to enhance service levels, improve quality, and ultimately lead to more satisfied customers.