Bye!There’s a saying that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But what about those who suffer in silence? Did you know that statistically, only about four percent of customers who experience problems actually complain? (Source: Technical Assistance Research Program) If they’re not complaining, what are they doing? They leave. No good-bye, no explanation. Nothing.

But here’s the thing – they are more than happy to share their experience with their friends. The average upset customer tells nine people, while one in five will tell more than 20. So it’s not that they are quiet when they leave, they just don’t tell you what the problem is.

But if only four percent of customers complain, how can you possibly know what the other 96 percent are thinking? Your best bet is to see what the four-percenters are saying. In his article “Turn Complaining Customers into Loyal Customers,” business coach Bill Cates says that for every complaint heard, the average company has 26 other customers with the same problem. So if you solve one person’s problem, and take steps to figure out how to prevent this from occurring again, you potentially solve the problem for 26 others. Pretty powerful, right?

Dealing with customers who complain takes a skilled hand and an understanding of how to communicate. So what should you do next time you get a customer complaint? Here are 10 steps recommended by Cates:

  1. Say “I’m sorry.” These should be the first words out of your mouth. It costs nothing. It isn’t admitting fault. You’re just sorry they are feeling inconvenienced. These are the most powerful words you can speak to a complaining customer.
  2. Honor their perspective. Even if their position is clearly off-base. Their perspective is their reality, and must be honored.
  3. Don’t get defensive. This will only make things worse for you and for them. Resist the urge to protect yourself.
  4. Don’t make excuses or argue. Nobody ever won an argument with a customer. Even if you “win” and prove you are right, you lose.
  5. Fully understand the problem. Ask questions and repeat back what you think you’ve heard. Make sure everything is crystal clear.
  6. Tell them what you’re going to do next. Seeing you take immediate and logical action will help them feel their problem is being handled competently.
  7. Tell them when you’ll get back to them. Don’t leave them hanging and stressed about the problem. And then get back to them when you said you would.
  8. Thank them for bringing the concern to your attention right away. You especially want to do this with the little things, so they’ll keep bringing them up, rather than silently going to the competition.
  9. Resolve the problem quickly. Studies indicate that the faster you resolve problems, the less damage is done.
  10. Follow through and follow up. Make sure all residual issues have been cleaned up.

Next time you’re faced with a hostile customer, take a deep breath and have these steps in front of you. Do what you can to solve their problem, see if you can fix this problem across the board, and know that you are helping at least 26 other clients along the way.