How to be an active listener – fielding tricky complaints and building co-operation with upset customers 

6 min read
February 22, 2023

In our new series of articles, we’re focusing on the well being of our users, many of whom we see struggling with their mental health when trying to deal with complaints. 

Consumers can have a tough time raising complaints due to the way many companies approach customer service. But we also see many businesses, big and small, working really hard to support their customers as best they can. This can be especially difficult in precarious times when consumers are already more vulnerable to becoming distressed or upset.

Research shows that the act of complaining can become a positive experience when someone feels like they are being heard. And that the negative effects of a bad experience can be further amplified when they don’t.

So for the person receiving and responding to a complaint, being an active listener can transform the complaints process. Simply making a customer feel listened to can make the difference between them suffering even more or feeling hopeful about moving forward.

How we can help businesses take better care of their customers

At Resolver, we always seek to look at things from both sides to ensure that we help everyone arrive at a positive resolution.

In our role, we get a lot of insight into how difficult dealing with complaints and disappointed customers can be from the business’s perspective. 

In some of the complaints that pass through our system, we see customers using hostile, aggressive or unhelpful language. Sometimes the person making the complaint does not have an actionable solution in mind or is asking for something that would be impossible to provide. At other times, the complainer may be in such distress it can be hard to know how to move forward cooperatively. 

We’ve put together some helpful tips on how to be an active listener in the face of tricky complaints and get off to a good start when responding to negative feedback from a customer. 

How to be an active listener

Show that you are concerned 

In a culture of blame, saying that you’re sorry something happened to someone is the same as accepting that it is all your fault. We think it is better for everyone to break away from this defensive logic and to be more empathetic communicators.  

Rather than denying or minimising someone’s negative experience, acknowledge their distress. Simply saying that you are sorry that they’ve had a bad experience with your product or service will show that you want to help them move forward from this and feel better in the future.   

Show that you want to understand their perspective

As well as demonstrating that you are empathising with them, show the person complaining that you are actively listening to the details of the complaint itself. 

When responding to a written complaint, you can show that you are following what they are saying by repeating or rephrasing their complaint. Use statements like ‘You have said….’, ‘I see that…’, ‘From what you’ve described, I understand that…’. 

You will build trust by showing that you want to understand their issue better and intend to help them, not just protect yourself or your company. 

Ask questions and defer judgment to build rapport

Asking follow-up questions is not just about getting necessary information – like confirming a customer’s payment details or how or when they experienced an issue. When you ask someone to provide more information you show that you haven’t already made up your mind and that you want to solve the problem together (rather than scrambling to find a quick solution to get rid of them). In other words, you make the complainer feel valued by suggesting that their experience has something to teach you.

This can also be a great opportunity to offer a difficult customer a chance to correct their behaviour or modulate their original claims. If someone is being particularly hostile, ask them if they would be willing to moderate their language to help you understand them better and work towards a solution. If it is really unclear what they would like done, ask them what kind of resolution they had in mind to make things better. If they are in extreme distress, ask them if they have access to any other support while you work on solving the problem they’ve complained about. 

Take the time to explain why something has gone wrong 

An integral part of being resilient in the face of life’s difficulties is being able to process such experiences and make sense of why they happened in the first place. It may seem like it wouldn’t make a difference, but numerous studies show that getting an explanation of why something bad has happened can make it much easier for the person affected to move on more positively.  

So even with seemingly minor issues – like a slightly defective product or a perceived slight from a customer service representative – take the time to fully explain the details of why the service you provide may have gone wrong on this occasion and how this reflects the specific challenges of your sector. This will diffuse a customer’s sense of being personally victimised or suffering from someone else’s negligence or carelessness. 

Be personable and friendly (or, avoid arguing and being defensive) 

Try to make communications less combative and more cooperative. Resist amplifying negativity by using positive language. Even when you don’t have good news or immediate solutions, there is no need to make the exchange more stressful for yourself or the customer.

You may not be able to resolve every issue or give a customer the resolution they are asking for, but you needn’t be defensive about this. If you can’t provide everything being asked for, just say so in a direct and friendly manner. 

By directly and openly acknowledging when you have let someone down or disappointed their expectations, you will help them move forward from this. Being hostile, or even just avoidant or unresponsive, will only make someone feel more upset or angry. 

Remember that you can’t control the customer’s emotions, but you can improve your own practices 

You can’t please everyone, the old saying goes. There will be times when you simply cannot make up for a bad customer experience. However, you can reframe negative feedback as a learning experience for yourself and your business. This will make a negative interaction feel less like a failure and more of a challenge for improving your practices in the future. 

Accepting that a customer is entitled to feel the way they do can be hard. But even when someone is being extremely negative, you should take their feedback onboard. It may be difficult to deal with in the moment, but even the most belligerent complainer has something to teach you about how to make your product better or improve customer experiences.

Remember to protect yourself too

Unfortunately, we see some instances of complainers using discriminatory language, particularly racist, sexist, ableist, and homophobic insults. This, we strongly believe, should never be tolerated. 

If you are struggling to respond to a complaint of this nature, feel free to use the response that we use in Resolver support: ‘The language you are using is discriminatory and unacceptable. This means that we will not be able to take any action on your communication or correspond with you further. If there comes a time when you would be willing to apologise for your language and moderate your hostile tone, we would welcome an apology and a chance to move forward cooperatively and respectfully.’ 


As always, if you have any questions or comments feel free to get in touch with us at

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