A Complaint Management System to Turn a Critic Into an Advocate

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Every organization has their critics and must have a complaint management plan to prevent a critic from becoming a crisis. 

Sometimes, criticism is warranted. Organizations make mistakes and an upset customer from time to time can be expected. Perhaps somebody didn’t receive an order on time or customer service wasn’t as efficient as it should have been. School districts receive complaints from parents and other stakeholders who are seeking what is best for their child and believe the school hasn’t done everything they can to provide needed supports and instruction. Religious institutions receive complaints from parishioners who wish for their church to provide a different type of ministry or religious experience.

Of course, if we’re being honest, organizations don’t always receive complaints that are warranted, or even sane. Some people are completely unreasonable. We can’t always expect to deal with reasonable stakeholders. Especially in today’s “age of outrage”.

But whether or not we believe a complaint (or the complainer) to be reasonable and rational, we must come to an internal agreement in our organization on a complaint management system. 

Use these 10 keys to develop and implement an effective complaint management system to turn a critic into an advocate. (Or at least get them to be quiet!)


Don’t ignore and allow a complaint to turn into a crisis

About the worst thing you can do to a critic is completely ignore them. That’s not to say that there isn’t a time when continuing to respond becomes a fruitless endeavor, but silence shouldn’t be your first response. If a critic feels shut out, they will likely become louder and louder until somebody notices.

Whenever possible, speak in-person or on the phone

Be emailing, texting, or sending smoke signals, you allow too much interpretation of your message by the receiver. Clarity is essential. To ensure clarity is reached, make all attempts to speak in person, on the phone or by video chat rather than sending electronic messages.

Have the appropriate person respond

It’s not essential that the CEO of your organization be the one to respond to all complaints. But thought and intent should be put into deciding who the right person is. If the complaint pertains to customer service, have the manager of that department respond. If the complaint relates to messaging that was sent to stakeholders, perhaps the communications director is the best person to respond. 

Of course, if the complaint is coming from an elected official or CEO from a partnering organization, then your CEO may very well be the best person to respond.

By selecting the wrong person to reply to a complaint, it may exacerbate the frustration of the critic.

Be prepared with talking points

Don’t enter the conversation without being prepared. Jot down the main points you want to get across during your conversation. This shouldn’t be information overload and you’re not preparing closing remarks for a criminal trial. But you want to note no more than three primary points you wish the other person to know. Then during your discussion, keep coming back to these points.

Don’t wait too long

Unfortunately, mobile technology has spoiled all of us and created unrealistic expectations of expediency. Gone are the days when you would leave a message on an answering machine and hope for a call back by the next day.

In today’s texting, GPS, and social media society we now live, people expect a rapid response. This isn’t to say that your response must be immediate. In fact, there is value to taking time to think through your response and prepare talking points. But days shouldn’t go by either.

If they were upset enough to issue a complaint, they’re probably not going to be satisfied until a response has been received (and even then satisfaction is not guaranteed).

Listen first, ask questions, and don’t minimize their concern

Listen first! Then listen more. In fact, don’t say much at all until you have to. 

Be sure you have a clear understanding of exactly what their concern is. You may believe you know exactly what they’re going to say, but let them spell it out for you and provide details. They may surprise you.

Then, when you think you understand it all, dig deeper. Ask questions. Seek clarity when needed. Even recite some of their points to make sure you understood them as intended.

Only then should you respond to their criticism and speak to your talking points. By taking time to listen and seek understanding, you are providing legitimacy to the person issuing the critique. You may not support their position, but they will appreciate your efforts to understand them.

Don’t be combative

Ultimately, the answer may be no. You may not be able to satisfy the critic because your organization fundamentally disagrees with their position. Absolutely do not sell out your values or mission in order to quiet a loud voice. Ending with a stalemate is okay as long as it’s done respectfully and both parties can “agree to disagree.”

Make your points, but don’t insist on convincing them that they are misguided and should embrace your stance. Then, move on. If you can’t find common ground, hopefully both parties can at least appreciate the conversation and understand each other’s points.

Seek opportunities for your organization to improve

Amongst their complaints and sometimes vitriolic approach, a critic may raise a point or two from which you can improve. At the very least, you should probably question how communication could be improved to prevent misunderstanding moving forward.

If you can grow from the feedback, and hand them a small victory in the process, it’s a win-win. When possible, these lines will be well-received by your critic:

“That’s a good perspective I’m going to share with…”

“I honestly hadn’t looked at it from that perspective before. Thank you for providing your understanding.”

“I can understand why you perceived it that way. Thank you for providing your perspective so we may better communicate moving forward.”

Don’t permit name calling or personal attacks

Some critics can be downright nasty. You don’t need to accept name calling and personal attacks. They should receive one warning before ending the conversation. Try this:

“I understand that you are upset and I reached out so I may understand your perspective and concerns. However, I’m not going to accept that kind of language or personal insults. I want to continue this conversation, but I will end it if that kind of language continues.”

Most times, that’s enough. Sometimes it’s not and it’s okay to end the conversation. The worst thing you can do is bark back. Stay calm, collected, and professional. Don’t give them reason to make an even bigger scene.

Seek finality

We have all been stuck in those endless conversations that reiterate the same points over and over. You have to find a way to break the loop. An effective way to do this is to summarize their points and then clarify any next steps. Then, thank them for the conversation and end it. This is an effective way to end the conversation without cutting them off. 

Additionally, once you sense they are in a loop and making the same points again, it’s important to end the conversation because often people will begin to become more and more agitated the longer they speak.


A conversation with a critic is rarely an easy one to have. By following these ten complaint management points, you can navigate that conversation and potentially turn a critic into an advocate. Sometimes, people simply want to be heard and respond positively to a genuine conversation.

It’s Important to outline what your organization’s complaint management system will look like. How are complaints processed and who is responding? Have those responding individuals been trained on how to do so? They should be.

By providing a bit of professional development to these “lucky” employees, you can prevent criticism from becoming a crisis.