No one likes to be criticized. But customers do understand how your products and services affect them. So a wise business owner will pay attention to customer complaints, even when they seem to descend from left field, even when criticisms seem — on the surface, at least — unreasonable.

It’s important, first of all, to defuse emotions. Like the bomb squad called in to deactivate a deadly device, you want to make sure the situation doesn’t escalate out of control. Once tension has diminished, you can engage in rational conversation with your customer.

Usually some grain of truth can be gleaned from even the most irrational grievance. Sometimes the problem is obvious — a defective product or poor customer service from an untrained employee, for example. Other times, you may need to listen long and hard to discover the underlying problem, like a patient doctor who studies symptoms and consults with colleagues before prescribing a remedy.

Following are three tried-and-true suggestions for dealing with customer complaints:

  • Don’t ignore them. Whether or not you agree, it’s important to let customers know that you’ve heard them and will attempt to meet their needs. Employees should be trained to treat customers with respect, make eye contact, and listen without interruption. Such simple acts of courtesy will often lower the level of emotion so that complaints can be constructively addressed. A customer who isn’t acknowledged may leave in a huff and start broadcasting complaints about your business to anyone who will listen.
  • Keep the process positive. If a customer shows signs of frustration or anger, a response in kind may simply add fuel to the fire. Don’t be afraid to apologize. There’s a reason the customer is upset, regardless of whether you’re at fault. Take the time to listen. Acknowledge the importance of the issue and be willing to make things right.
  • Work toward a solution. If a product was defective, replace it — no questions asked, no excuses given. If someone was treated poorly by one of your employees, acknowledge the problem and let the customer know that you take such complaints seriously. Get the details. Complaints often highlight the need for additional training or revised procedures. Track complaints with a log and use them to your advantage.

Over time, dealing constructively with customer complaints can build loyalty and may even generate new business.