Be a Great Receiver of Complaints (Even Those That Seem Unreasonable)


How do you manage less-than-positive feedback? This is an area I need ongoing work in. A person sent a long story to me in which he shared his frustration regarding how he was treated by someone in an organization he was dealing with. He did not send this story so I would contact the organization, but to vent and get my opinion. I know the top person in the organization he is frustrated with. When I was reading this note, the thought came to mind: How will the person receive the less-than-positive feedback?  While I have not spoken to the head of the organization recently, he has a reputation for being defensive and having a short temper.

We can read all we want that complaints are a gift. I get that perspective. Yet I find some people do not want that gift of a complaint. And some just do not respond well when they hear concerns and/or complaints.

When complaints are received, we can sometimes hear things like, “The person (complainer) was in a bad mood.” Or, “They are wrong and do not have the facts.” Or, “Nothing could have made them happy.” Or, “Only unhappy people fill out the survey.” All of these statements may be factual at times. However, they may reflect mindsets that keep one from learning—blaming or finding fault with the person bringing the complaint, rationalizing that the complaint is not accurate, or stating that it is not your fault does not help the situation.

My suggestion is to pause when you receive a complaint. I share with leaders, “When the employee engagement results come to you, and they are less than you would like, pause! Take time to breathe. Your response will be better.”

One of the most interesting complaints I’ve received involved the minor league baseball team I own, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. A person sent me an email asking us to honor a high school baseball team that won the championship. He also shared that they have a star pitcher, and it would be good for the pitcher to throw out the first pitch. I sent the request to a person with the Wahoos. A few weeks later, I received a text message from the person who had made the request. He was terribly angry. He texted that he was upset that the team was not sitting right behind home plate and that the pitcher did not throw out the first pitch of the game. (He expected the actual first pitch, rather than the ceremonial pitch that happens before the game.) He pointed out that the website said the game started at 6:35 p.m., and the high school pitcher threw out the first pitch at 6:15 p.m., so people may have missed it. The text concluded, “This was his first game, and he will never come back.” My initial thought was, Let’s hope he never comes back!

In reading the text, I found many items that made no sense. The seats behind home plate are paid for and used by season ticket holders. I thought everyone would know the first pitch did not mean the first pitch of a real game. I thought, No good deed goes unpunished. But we did take action after receiving the text by changing our communication on game times. Yes, the game starts at 6:35 p.m.; however, pregame activities start at 6:15 p.m., which includes ceremonial first pitches.

The point is that what most would consider a “way out there” complaint led to a positive change. There is value in pausing and not shutting down a complaint without looking deeper into what was said.

Here is another example: A suggestion came in from a family member of a patient in a hospital. They mentioned it would be good to post the hours that the gift shop is open. The suggestion was sent to the manager of the gift shop. The manager was none too happy. They quickly took a photo of the sign on the door of the gift shop with hours listed and sent it to the nurse manager who had forwarded the suggestion along with a note, “The hours are posted.” Digging deeper, the person meant they would like to have hours posted in the patient care areas. This prevents someone from going to the gift shop only to find out it is closed. It makes lots of sense. The key is to not write off a suggestion or take it as a complaint.

A few tips:

  • Pause before acting. Take time to let the information sink in. I have many examples of a person not pausing and later wishing they had. (This person is mostly me—reacting too soon and/or overreacting.)
  • Look for the other person’s point of view. The letter that led to this column was from someone who was very hurt because they felt they were being helpful and were not perceived as such.
  • Consider that they may be right. Example: After every home stand, three members of the visiting team complete a survey of the clubhouse. We got a survey that said there were cobwebs. In looking closely at results, two of the three were positive and had no mention of cobwebs. In checking the clubhouse, there were no cobwebs. The staff did find some in a tunnel by the clubhouse. So, the person was right. Now we could choose to say, “Two out of three said the clubhouse is great,” or, “The survey was on the clubhouse, not the tunnel,” or, “That one person is finicky.” However, the best action is to apologize for the cobwebs and thank them for helping us be better—and to check the tunnel on a regular basis.

The main message? Become a great receiver of complaints. There is usually a lesson to be had when we pause and look at things from the other person’s perspective. And when we act based on the feedback, we can get better and better.

Quint Studer
If you are interested in purchasing books or having Quint speak in-person or virtually, please contact

Quint Studer’s Wall Street Journal bestseller The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive is filled with tips, tactics, and need-to-know insights. It functions as a desk reference, pocket guide, and training manual for anyone in a leadership position. His newest book, The Calling: Why Healthcare Is So Special, is aimed at helping healthcare professionals keep their sense of passion and purpose high.

Quint is the cofounder of Healthcare Plus Solutions Group, a consulting firm that specializes in delivering customized solutions to diagnose and treat healthcare organizations’ most urgent pain points. He also serves as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of West Florida, Executive-in-Residence at George Washington University, and Lecturer at Cornell University.