How To Handle Complaints: Know The Magic Question

When you receive a complaint, here’s a magic question and a template that almost always changes the tone of the interaction.

First, listen attentively to the complaint, and do not interrupt except to ask for a relevant fact, or perhaps for permission to make notes about the complaint.  You might begin the conversation by saying:  “Please tell me what happened,” or if there has been a dispute, “Please tell me your side of what happened.”

Two, when the person finishes, ask the magic question: “What can I do to make this right?” (A variation of the magic question is:  “What can I do to make this better?”)
Just asking this question changes the complaint into a problem-solving exercise.

Three, after asking the question, be silent.  Do not volunteer an answer. Wait attentively until the other person tells you what he or she wants. You often will be surprised at how little someone with a grievance requests—if you use the magic question, and wait.

Occasionally, when you ask the magic question, someone will ask for something unreasonable. If that happens, reply, “I certainly want to make this right. But I’m not able to do that.  Is there something else that I can do?” At this point, you can suggest an alternative that presents a win for both sides.

Don’t limit the use of the magic question to business situations. It works beautifully in social settings, too.

(Power question and power statements are in bold.)

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