“What a concept!” I marveled to myself as I read my friend Janelle Barlow’s book, A Complaint is a Gift.  It’s a business book about customer service and the importance of getting feedback – especially negative feedback – from customers.  Janelle asserts that complaints are not problems to be avoided – complaints are actually gifts to be welcomed.  What a radical way to think about complaints!

Complaints are important for several reasons:

• You don’t know how to improve your product or service if you don’t know what’s wrong.
• Customer complaints can give you ideas for new products and services.
• Complaints give you valuable information about what’s important to people, what they’re willing to spend money on.

Complaints also tell you that the customer still wants to do business with you – she still cares about the relationship she has with your company and she wants you to fix the problem so she can continue to do business with you.  Most customers don’t complain – they just take their business elsewhere – because they’ve given up hope of getting what they need from you.

The problem is, most people think that customer complaints are bad. They mistakenly think that no complaints means no problems. But as long as you’re in business, you will always have problems – it’s part and parcel of doing business.  The important thing to focus on is how you handle those problems when they occur.

That’s why a complaint is really a gift. Just as we thank someone who gives us a birthday gift, we should thank someone who brings us a complaint.  They have given us something valuable, something useful, something that can help make our business stronger and more profitable – and we should treat their complaint as the gift that it really is.

“This is a great concept,” I kept thinking as I read her book.  “And what’s more, it applies not only to business, but to personal relationships as well.”

I thought about all the different ways that complaints come into our lives:  our parents complain about some aspect of our behavior; our lovers complain when they feel neglected; our friends complain if we have a misunderstanding; our neighbors complain about a problem with our home; our children complain if they need something from us that we haven’t provided.  Complaints are simply a normal part of what it means to live in relationships with other people.

After reading Janelle’s book, I started reacting differently when someone in my life complained to me.  Of course, sometimes I would forget that a complaint is a gift, and I reacted defensively.  But when I could catch myself – and remind myself that a complaint is a gift – I could make the interaction a learning experience rather than a battle.  I could use their complaint to make our relationship better, rather than let the complaint tear us apart.

If someone in my life has a complaint about me, I am reassured that at least they are still talking to me.  That tells me that they still care about our relationship and want to make it better.  If they stop talking to me, that’s when I should worry … it means they’ve given up on our relationship.


Here’s how I treat complaints as gifts in my personal life:

1. I thank the person for his complaint.  I tell him how much I appreciate his taking the time to tell me about his problem
2. I tell him why I’m thanking him – because I care about our relationship and his complaint gave me an opportunity to address anything that isn’t working between us.
3. I apologize for the fact that he is unhappy.  (Note:  I don’t assume guilt or say that it is my fault, I simply say, “I’m sorry you’re unhappy about this.”)
4. I promise to do whatever I can to solve the problem.
5. I sometimes ask for more information or clarification or specifics, so that I can fully understand his unhappiness.
6. I take whatever steps I can to correct the problem – focusing on things that are within my control. If it’s something out of my control, I explain that.  If it is something that really has nothing to do with me at all, this is the point in the discussion when we are most likely to discover that.
7. I ask him if he feels his complaint is being addressed. If not, we go back to the beginning of the process.
8. I try to learn from the situation – I learn new things about myself, about him, and about our relationship.

And most important of all, I always emphasize what I can do, rather than what I can’t.  I look for what is possible, rather than telling him what is impossible.  Pointing out what I can’t do simply makes us both more frustrated.

This “complaint is a gift” notion is not one that comes naturally to me – nor to anyone.  No one likes to hear negative feedback, particularly from people we care about.  But if we can hear what’s behind the complaint – the desire to fix something that’s hurting the other person – then we can see how their complaint really is a gift!

"A Complaint Is a Gift" by Janelle Barlow and Claus Møller
“A Complaint Is a Gift” by Janelle Barlow and Claus Møller
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