Don't handle complaints in a NUT-free environment: Why most complaint-handling guides actually make things worse for your customers

Complaints. Often synonymous with "difficult customers", they’re the support advisor's nightmare: Unhappy customers can be hard to please. Strong emotions may be at play; in British culture, those are usually well guarded, making it tricky for advisors to correctly read the customer's emotional state. No wonder many customer service folks learn to approach complaints with a guiding structure.

Most of those guides tend to make your company's complaint-handling worse. 

This article shows why — and introduces you to a scientifically proven way to connect with people who are stressed, emotional and making a complaint.

Step away from the acronym machine, sir!

Complaint Google Search Results

Any quick Google search brings up a multitude of service-related acronyms designed to structure your complaint handling.

Among the most popular ones are the LEARN, ANSWER and CARP models:



Way forward


Problem Solve


Acronyms are a "common mnemonic for remembering lists", often in the right order. They're easy to teach and remember, and give support teams the reassuring feeling that “they've got this covered”.

Their usefulness ends there.

Teach someone an acronym, and they're likely to interpret it as step-by-step instructions. For example, they'll listen first, then empathise, then apologise and then react (LEARN). Why would you find a way forward before you empathise (ANSWER)?

Great customer support conversations are great conversations

A good conversation partner is always listening and empathizing — even after the conversation has ended, to empathetically improve company processes and policies. If advisors misunderstand your chosen acronym as a list of steps they should follow, your customers’ experience will suffer.

Don’t kid yourself: you're not in control (yet)

Robert Bacal's CARP model starts off by telling advisors to assert their "control" of the situation.
Having worked as a front line support advisor myself, I can almost taste the metallic flavour of fear in my mouth, and feel the cold sweat on my palms.
When a customer decides to complain, they're in control.
The customer can decide to shout or ask to speak to a supervisor, they can decide to never buy from your company again, and it's up to them whether the Ombudsman or a hungry social media audience hear about their case. Just look at what happened when United Airlines were trying to assert their control after Mr Dao’s complaint recently.

What is more, the very word "control" is aggressive and the opposite of non-violent communication.
You don't want your support team to behave like the now-suspended American Airlines flight attendant, or barge in right at the start of a complaint and shout "I'VE GOT THIS, SIR!" at your customer.

Controlling the situation is the happy result of a respectful, non-violent exchange about the customer's needs and how to meet them. While Robert Bacal would probably agree, this isn't obvious from the word "control" — and support teams don't always get to refer to the book that came with the 4-step model they learned. 

Don't neutralise your customers

Like "control", "neutralise" (in the ANSWER model) is another word that should come with a manual.

"Typically, when someone is emotional and we are not, we try to counterbalance them by staying calm," explains Human Behaviour Hacker Vanessa Van Edwards in her new book, Captivate. "But this doesn't work. In fact, it usually only infuriates an upset person even more" (emphasis mine).

Fortunately, she goes on to teach a simple technique for dealing with difficult people, based on Dr Mark Goulston's hostage release technique. 

Warning: contains NUTs

 I hear you: NUT another acronym! But trust me (and Vanessa Van Edwards): this one works.

I hear you: NUT another acronym! But trust me (and Vanessa Van Edwards): this one works.

N-U-T stands for 3 easy-to-apply techniques in 3 scientifically proven steps:

  1. Name the emotion: what is this person afraid of?
  2. Understand the feeling: what is this person seeking?
  3. Transform the problem: what does this person need?

1. Name the emotion

  • People usually get "difficult" when they're afraid of something. So first of all, listen or read for words that tell you about your customer’s inner fears.
    Are they worried about not being taken seriously? Afraid their complaint might be rejected?
  • Use the customer’s own emotion words in your response:
    "You seem ____", or, "Are you feeling ______?"
    While you may find this unnatural at first, it helps them feel validated and open up about their true needs.
  • Got the impression that your customer feels heard? — Move to step 2: 

2. Understand

  • Ask questions that allow you to delve deeper into what's causing the customer's fears:
    "Tell me what happened that made you feel this way", or "What caused this ____?"
  • Pay attention to words that tell you what matters most to the customer: information, status, money, love, goods, or you doing something for them (service).
    Captivate includes a whole chapter on how to use people’s expressions to identify their "primary values".

3. Transform

  • Once you're sure the customer is able to talk through practical solutions, ask how you can support them:
    "How can I help?", "What needs to happen for you to feel better?"
    Now is the time to give answers, make good what went wrong or offer compensation. This roughly corresponds with the "React", "Way forward" and "Problem solve" steps in the LEARN, ANSWER and CARP models.
  • When complaints escalate, it’s often because this step came too early in the process. Have a look at this Live Chat example:

As Vanessa Van Edwards puts it:

"Do NOT try to move onto the Transform step until you are fully done naming and understanding.
If someone is still speaking in a loud voice, tearful or flushed with emotion — they are not done processing yet."

  • What if you can’t fix the problem? Show the customer you value them and their point of view.
When you Name, Understand, and Transform someone out of their difficulty, you become their ally.
— Vanessa Van Edwards, Captivate

— And who wouldn't want that?

Over to you


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