How to Write a Complaint Response Email to a Customer

complaint handling how to apologize to a customer how to write a complaint response email to a customer

Recently, I had to practice what I teach. 


My team enrolled a repeat client into our online De-escalation Academy, which we do every day for customers around the globe. But something went wrong. Instead of getting our standard welcome email with login details, each of the 51 employees was bombarded with around 70 emails, all featuring the same welcome!


I was confused and sat in disbelief. But this was real. And my client was not happy! Emails and calls started rolling in. We were accused of spamming people's inboxes. We looked entirely unprofessional.

Now, I, the Customer Service and De-escalation Expert, had to own my mistake and put my de-escalation frameworks into practice.


Using the email I sent to my client after this service breakdown, I will show you exactly how to write a complaint response email in four easy steps.



Note: Although I'm giving you four steps, the order doesn't matter. The point is to cover each of the four focuses in your complaint response email.


Step 1: Validate the Customer's Experience.


Imagine a friend texts, "Hey, how are you?" and you reply, "Not so good. We just had to put my dog down last week. And I've got anxiety over mid-terms next week. How are you?" 


And your friend texts back, "I'm anxiously awaiting my Las Vegas trip next week. Wish you could join."


You might hold your phone a little closer to re-read your text. And you'd think, what? What just happened here? What happened is your friend didn't validate your experience. They made it all about them. And that doesn't feel good, does it? Sometimes, customers give us their story of the challenge they've had with our company, and we say, "Claim number?" or "Can I get you to verify your address for me?"


You need to validate your customers' experience so they feel heard. Customers vent more when you don't validate because they don't feel understood. 


Validation is acknowledging a customer's feelings without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with them. Your goal is to demonstrate that you're listening to the customer, understand their perspective, and can help them resolve the issue.


Here Are Some Key Phrases for Validating


  • Acknowledgment: "I realize this whole thing has been frustrating."
  • Support: "I'm sorry you've had such a frustrating time. I'm here to help you sort this out." 


Note: You'll notice I used the word "frustrating" twice here. I love the word frustrate for validating customers' experiences. It's not as charged as, "I know you're angry," and it doesn't minimize the customer's experience. I want you to use "frustrate" often to acknowledge your customer's concerns.


  • Affirmation: "I can see your point on that." or "We want to get to the bottom of this as much as you do."
  • Assurance:  When you're certain you can help, you can say: "I'll get to the bottom of this for you and get you on your way quickly."


In my complaint response email, I focused on my customer's pain points to validate this way:


Last week, we sent you dozens of emails welcoming you to our De-escalation Academy. Many of you were in meetings, focused on work, driving, or on crucial phone calls, when our emails kept pinging, pinging, pinging. The automated system we used to enroll your team was miscoded to repeatedly grant you access to the classroom. When we caught the error, we'd already flooded your inbox.


When you acknowledge the customer's feelings, you create rapport and show confidence and capability. Try this: Take a moment now to write out your favorite one or two phrases from this article. Then, take a few seconds to write out your own validation phrase. 


Step 2: Explain how/why the problem happened.


A vital but often overlooked element of customer recovery is explaining how or why the problem happened. Explaining what might have caused the problem to a customer helps organizations re-establish trust and regain customer goodwill.


Explaining can be as simple as saying, "Thanks for taking the time to let us know about _____. We appreciate customers who let us know when things aren't right. Here's what we think may have happened…"


I explained what happened to my client this way:

We are taking immediate corrective measures to regain your trust. My team and I met with our classroom hosting vendor to understand the precise issue. What we initially saw as a glitch was a preventable coding error. We are now focusing on how to test, spot, and prevent coding errors.


Step 3: Offer Some Form of "I'm Sorry."


I chose to open my complaint response email with "I'm sorry." I did it this way:


I am sorry and embarrassed.

It's up to you where to place "I'm sorry." The point is to include it. When you say "sorry" to a customer, whether you're making an outright apology, that is, owning the issue or expressing empathy with the words, "I'm sorry," you're positioning yourself to regain goodwill and restore confidence.


I want you to understand that there's a difference between apologizing and saying, "I'm sorry." I recommend you use the words "I'm sorry," when you want express regret or show empathy and only apologize when the company has made a mistake. 


For example, if the customer's order is running late because of a third party shipping issue, you could say, "I'm sorry this is taking so long." If the order is late because after the customer placed the order, the item was out of stock and no communication went out to the customer to let them know of the delay, you could apologize, "It's come to my attention there's a 2-3 week delay in shipment of one or more of your pieces in your order and you haven't been contacted about it. We apologize for any inconvenience this delay may cause and for not informing you sooner."

You can learn more about the difference between apologizing and saying "I'm sorry" in this video.


Step 4: Explain how you will resolve the issue (or tell the customer what you've already done). 


Take the time to explain exactly what will happen next to customers. This explanation helps put customers at ease and builds confidence that you really care about resolving the issue and regaining goodwill. 


My explanation of how we were resolving the issue is the same statement I used to describe what happened. We're focusing on how to test, spot, and prevent coding errors.

We are taking immediate corrective measures to regain your trust. My team and I met with our classroom hosting vendor to understand the precise issue. What we initially saw as a glitch was a preventable coding error. We are now focusing on how to test, spot, and prevent coding errors.

Continue the Conversation with Me?

For help with saying "I'm sorry" to customers and de-escalating intense interactions, check out these resources.


De-escalating for Customer Service


Why you've been unsuccessful with angry customers from De-Escalating Conversations for Customer Service by Myra Golden

Nearly every customer service professional has encountered a livid customer. These individuals may yell, curse, or forcefully disagree with a policy that you must enforce, but can't control. Such situations are unquestionably tough, but—with the right approach—you can consistently de-escalate the tension. In this course, instructor Myra Golden shares strategies for defusing intense situations, providing practical approaches that can help you calm angry customers. Myra goes over what often causes situations to escalate, and shares practical steps you can take to prevent an escalation. She also provides tips that can help you reframe conversations, manage expectations, handle customers who ask for your supervisor, and more.


Delivering Bad News to Customers


Offer options to guide customers forward and preempt escalations from Delivering Bad News to a Customer by Myra Golden

Customer service is about providing the best experience to a customer—yet, a lot of the time customer service reps find that their hands are tied, and that what the customer wants is not something the rep can deliver. How can CSRs work to keep the relationship with the company strong and intact? This course outlines a simple four-step approach that can be used in a variety of customer service settings. Learn about communication styles, methods, and approaches that can be applied to challenging situations like delivering bad news, handling concerns, and more.


Customer Service: How to Deliver Support Across Languages


Feel confident as you support customers across languages from Customer Service: How to Deliver Support Across Languages by Myra Golden

Build your confidence in delivering support to global customers. In this course, customer service expert Myra Golden outlines how to be successful in supporting global customers confidently and efficiently–especially if your first language is not English. Learn how to recognize the role confidence plays in supporting cross-cultural customers, and practice elevating your confidence by exploring any personal obstacles you may experience. Myra also shares proven techniques for creating rapport and connection with all of your customers. Finally, discover how to foster connection and avoid upsetting customers by empathetically addressing and acknowledging their concerns.

Check Out Our Most Popular Training - De-escalation Academy!

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