How to handle a flood of customer complaints

Written by on November 1, 2018

A company PR disaster can be a customer support leader’s worst nightmare.

Picture this: You are the head of a large customer support team. You step into the office one morning and the whole scene is chaos. The phones are ringing, emails are flooding in, and customers are posting negative comments online. Your platform has crashed and your team is overwhelmed with customer complaints. All eyes turn to you. What should they do?

They should turn to your customer support playbook. A playbook is crucial to helping you and your team understand how to strategically handle the problem on a customer support level and how to avoid further damaging the company’s brand image.

Creating a customer support playbook

For sports teams, particularly American football, a playbook is an invaluable resource for directing both offensive and defensive plays. The same can be said for customer support teams. And just as in athletics, no two playbooks are alike. You must develop a playbook unique to your company to serve as a guide for daily activities and difficult situations.

Creating a playbook is a strategic choice. The content, however, should be both strategic and tactical. Think of it as two types of plays. First, let’s take a look at the type of strategic plays you can include in your playbook — from a higher-level strategy perspective to more practical strategic steps. Then we’ll look at tactical plays you can apply during a crisis.

Strategic plays help your team win long-term

According to the Oxford Dictionary, strategy is defined as “A plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.” Keeping this in mind, a well-thought-out strategy in your playbook should provide a framework for answering overall, core questions for your team. It can be broken down into higher-level and lower-level strategic plays.

Higher-level strategic plays incorporate your team’s overall purpose and mission as they relate to the company and how you will achieve your goals. Based on this information, lower-level strategic plays outline the initial moves to make before tactical plays.

Higher-level Strategic plays

The following suggestions should serve as a guide for the tactical decisions you make later on — the overarching strategy of your playbook:

  • Ensure your team is properly trained – What are your goals as a company and as a team? Your customer messages? Who are the points of contact for certain customer issues? Provide example responses to customer concerns. More important than how, explain why each item is important to your team’s success.
  • Outline best practices for dealing with PR disasters – Make a list of possible events that could flood your department with complaints. Next, outline steps to take if each event were to occur. Scenarios will always be different in real life but having a foundational action plan is helpful.
  • Invest in the right tools for your customer support team – There are many tools available to streamline customer support such as ticketing systems, SMS to improve inbound calls, and live chat. For example, live chat is an excellent tool to manage customer requests 24/7. Research from Copper shows that 44% of customer communication already happens through live chat.

Lower-level strategic plays

What types of strategic plays should you make after discovering a disaster has occurred? Below are the initial steps for you to take as a leader before you help your customer support team:

  • Understand the challenges – Along with discussing the problems with management, talk to departments outside of customer support to ensure you understand exactly what is going on.
  • Understand the solutions – Ask what will be done to correct the problem and understand the “why.”
  • Clearly communicate to your team – Call a quick meeting or send an email outlining the challenge and the solutions that will be provided. Make sure your team feels supported.

Both levels of strategy are just as important as the other. These strategic plays provide the core layers of your playbook and help you add tactical plays within a specific framework.

Tactical plays help your team win in the moment

Whereas strategic plays help your team succeed over the long run, tactical plays are important to help you make immediate decisions in critical moments. There are many different tactical plays that you could make. Having actionable items already written out means that you will be prepared when an actual situation occurs.

That said, let’s now pivot from strategic to tactical outcomes. After ensuring that the matter is clarified internally for a company crisis, below are three plays to implement during a disaster with real company examples so you can learn from their best practices and mistakes.

1. Communicate on social media

“The art of communication is the language of leadership.” -James Humes

Bugs have been appearing in NBA 2k19, a basketball simulation video game recently launched on September 7, 2018. Currency issues, never-ending games, and progression errors are all problems that customers have reported. Complaints have flooded in about the variety of issues across platforms. On September 9th, 2K Support tweeted:

2K tweet

Customers responded to the tweet:

Customer reply – Kai B


In addition to tweets, customers have also posted about 2K customer support on public forums:

Forum post

What 2K did right

2K Support has been active on Twitter, acknowledging the issues and encouraging customers to reach out with their ticket numbers.

Helpful 2K

The team also provided suggestions and articles for dealing with common problems. In addition, 2K pinned the following tweet to the top of its account, letting customers know about live chat available 24/7:

2K live chat tweet

In American football, anticipating the opponent’s next move is a key aspect of the game. 2K Support recognized that many of their customers are on social media. They proactively began posting updates and responding directly to customers through the platform.


Based on customer feedback, phone responses from the company could be better, but utilizing Twitter does help reach customers. This example reinforces the value of social media communication during a customer support crisis. On your own customer support social media accounts, try to:

  • Let the customer know that you recognize the problem and what you are doing to fix it.
  • Actively respond to customer concerns (automated messages are easier, but personalized is more effective).
  • Direct the customer to helpful resources such as support articles.

2. Take an organized approach

“Action expresses priorities.” -Mahatma Gandhi

On Valentine’s Day in 2014, many customers who had ordered flowers for loved ones from 1-800-Flowers received an unpleasant surprise. Flowers and candy were either not delivered or were in rough condition upon arrival. Unhappy customers began sharing about their botched Valentine’s Day on Twitter.


Adam WK

Adam Layer

Leaders of the company cited the weather as a major issue with the orders. Customer support representatives also responded to a number of tweets with apologies and directions to get in touch.


Some customers did not appear to be impressed. According to CNN Business, one customer waited on the phone for three hours without getting in touch with a representative and received an automated email to his complaint on the website. The refund and rescheduled delivery were eventually sorted but not before the story had been shared. Others tweeted similar stories:


Matthew Warren

What 1-800-Flowers did wrong

Customers complained of “difficult-to-reach service representatives, half-hearted solution attempts and still-unresolved issues.” A clear, organized plan for prioritizing customers could have helped with this.

Ask any football coach or player. Structure is a key component — whether it’s the way practice is organized or the very makeup of the game such as four quarters, there are rules to help everything run smoothly. 1-800-Flowers could have done a better job structuring how they would deal with customers to ensure no customer complaint was overlooked.


Organizing and clarifying a set of steps for customer prioritization will save your team time (and stress!). Below are several ways to ensure that each of your customer’s complaints is addressed:

  • Prioritize complaints in order of urgency.
  • Monitor each ticket’s status.
  • Document customer complaints.
  • Follow through and follow up.

3. THG – Be transparent, honest, and genuine

“A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.” Dalai Lama

147.9 million consumers are believed to have been affected by the Equifax data breach in 2017. The company discovered in late July 2017 that their system had been hacked and information, such as consumers’ social security numbers and addresses, had been accessed. Equifax did not make the information public until almost a month and a half later, but posted the following to Twitter on September 7:

Equifax tweet – Sept 7

Customers responded angrily to the tweet:



Equifax received numerous one-star ratings on ConsumerAffairs after the incident and customers posted about the poor customer support:



The day after reporting the breach, the AskEquifax Twitter account posted “Happy Friday! You’ve got Stevie ready and willing to help with your customer service needs today!” Needless to say, this enthusiastic post (which was soon deleted) received negative responses from customers.

What Equifax did wrong

Granted, the problems with this company go well beyond customer support. On a company level, Equifax hid important information from consumers. However, on a support level, Equifax did not do a good job being transparent or respecting the customer.

This would have been an excellent opportunity for Equifax to make an offensive play. Rather than having to go on the defensive (responding after mistakes had been made), the company should have quickly informed and addressed customer concerns in a way that made customers feel more secure and confident in the company’s efforts to fix the problem.


No matter the situation, the customer deserves a respectful experience from your team. Below are best practices when dealing with difficult customer complaints:

  • Apologize – The customer is upset. Your team member should sincerely apologize for the issue and take responsibility. Customers appreciate when a company admits they are wrong and that they care about the situation.
  • Be respectful – This is difficult when the customer is angry. Your team member should listen carefully and reiterate the specific problem back to the customer. If the customer needs to be redirected to another department, give the reasons why so they don’t feel like they are being handed off.
  • Give realistic solutions – Don’t offer solutions that your team can’t follow through on. No one appreciates an empty apology — you need to make it right. If your team member can’t offer a solution in the moment, make sure they convey to the customer that they are working on a solution and will follow up as soon as possible.

A winning playbook

Let’s recap.

As summarized, having a strategy in place is the proactive way to avoid customer support backlash later on. Strategic plays include:

  • Outline team training and best practices for PR disasters, and invest in proper tools for your team.
  • During a crisis, understand the challenges and solutions and share the problem internally.

From a tactical perspective, remember the following plays:

  • Communicate the issue on social media and outline how customers can best get in touch with customer support.
  • Organize a list of steps to prioritize customer complaints.
  • Remind your team to treat customers with care and respect.

Although these are all suggestions you can implement, how you develop your own customer support playbook will depend on your company, values, challenges, etc. You can even take the playbook further by dividing sections into game plans and outlining specific actions for the different scenarios that might arise. There are many possibilities.

In the end, you should have an overall guide for your customer support team to follow, including steps to take during PR disasters. Knowing how to effectively deal with customer complaints on both a strategic and tactical level will not only help the reputation of your customer support but also the whole company.


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