By Bill Akass, A Spokesman Said’s chief content officer

Disgruntled consumers made a record 66 million complaints last year regarding second-rate goods and services. Complaints figures almost doubled from 2013, as customers vented their outrage against banks, tradespeople, shops, energy firms and telecoms companies.

With the surge in use of social media and online review sites, where complaints are made public and remain visible indefinitely, start-ups and SME’s feel the impact of these complaints the most. A bad review or complaint can leave your customer numbers dwindling, and in the worst case scenario, even destroy your business altogether.

Resolving these complaints can turn the tables for unsatisfied customers, and in turn, the good reputation for customer service you achieve can be a huge boost for your business.

A survey carried out by consumer action website A Spokesman Said found that 86 per cent of the British public would not use a company they’d complained about again if they failed to resolve their issue. However more than three quarters (77%) would use a company they’d complained about again – as long as they’d successfully resolved the previous issue.

Here are my top ten tips on how SME’s can effectively handle complaints, protect their reputations and keep their customers happy:

Be reachable

If customers are able to reach you easily, they are less likely to take their complaints online. Do away with lengthy online contact forms and make your contact numbers clear and visible. Make sure you have a human on the end of the phone, putting people on hold will only make them angrier.

Respond quickly

If the complaint is public, online or on social media, respond quickly. Even if you don’t have a solution, let the customer know that you are working on a solution.

Be specific about expected response times

Give a clear outline of expected response times (and stick to them) to set the complainant at ease. If you can’t resolve the issue within the allotted time, make sure you update the complainant on the situation, providing a new estimate.

Be upfront

A little honesty goes a long way. Customers will rate you for being straight when responding to their complaints. Do not try and palm them off, or redirect them to another forum or service, simply answer their questions on the same forum they have complained you on. They will only thank you for it.

Qualify their expectations

Find out exactly what the complainant hopes to achieve. Are their expectations realistic? Be honest with them about what solution they are likely to achieve so both parties know what resolution they are working towards.

Dedicate resource to customer service

Make sure whoever is designated to handle complaints is competent and well-trained. Though it might be tempting to get your office assistant to double up as customer service, if they don’t have the right training they could make the problem worse for you as a business, with situations quickly spiralling out of control.

Admit your mistakes

If you’ve made a mistake, admit it. Everybody’s human! Be honest, apologise and offer a worthy solution. In our recent survey, the vast majority of the public stated they would use a company they’d complained about again – as long as they’d successfully resolved the previous issue.

Be personal

Address the customer by their name, learn about the situation and how it’s affected them and approach the situation with empathy and understanding. As they say, manners cost nothing and can often take the sting out of a situation.

Don’t just respond, resolve

There are many companies who respond quickly to email or online complaints with a generic message, usually ‘phone our customer services line on…’ The customer is then back at square one, being put on hold and speaking to a total stranger with no idea about who they are or what the issue is.

Ask the customer for their contact details and a suitable time to call, and when you do phone them, repeat their problem back to them. This shows you are interested and they won’t get frustrated repeatedly explaining their issue.

Be generous

Don’t be stingy when it comes to giving compensation or free services. If the customer is satisfied, they will come back to you time and again, so it’s worth the investment.