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How to answer an interview question about dealing with an unhappy customer

‘What would you do if a client complained?’ Tricky graduate interview question

Discover what recruiters really want when they ask you about responding to a client’s complaints, and how your response might reflect your skills in problem-solving and communication.
Show your ability to handle challenging situations professionally.

All organisations will have clients of some sort and it’s a fact of life that they may not always be happy. Interviewers want to see that you will be able to handle challenging situations in a professional way, taking responsibility and communicating effectively.

‘What would you do if a client complained?’ is a hypothetical question, so it may vary according to the demands and context of the sector – for example, in retail it might be a customer returning a product, but in engineering it might be a client changing a brief or raising an objection to the project plan.

This question is difficult to answer because it’s deceptively simple, but in order to answer it successfully you actually need to show a lot of different skills (eg communication skills, emotional intelligence, commercial awareness and problem-solving abilities) and a sophisticated understanding of the organisation and its clients.

The best way you can prepare to answer this question successfully is to research the organisation and understand who their clients are, and what products or services the organisation provides.

How not to answer the question ‘What would you do if a client complained?’

  1. ‘I’d say that I was sorry the client felt that way, but that they were wrong.’
  2. ‘I’d ask my manager to handle the situation.’
  3. ‘I’d apologise profusely and immediately offer a significant refund on their fee.’
  4. ‘I wouldn’t respond directly but would instead begin to talk about something more exciting that our organisation could offer them.’
  5. ‘I’d explain politely that nothing could be done at this stage.’

Why are these answers unlikely to get you the graduate job you want?

  1. Recruiters don’t want to hear that you would tell a client that they’re wrong (even if they are) because it shows a lack of communication skills and emotional intelligence. Even if the client was mistaken, recruiters will want to see that you can show empathy and respond in a way that addresses the client’s concerns politely and with understanding.
  2. It’s important to show recruiters that you can take responsibility for solving a problem, rather than simply passing it on to somebody else. While you would want to make a manager aware of the problem and may pass it on to them if it becomes complicated, you should show recruiters that you can take responsibility – for instance by thinking of possible solutions to suggest when you run it past your manager.
  3. Recruiters won’t like the lack of commercial awareness on show here. It doesn’t look good to start giving money away – particularly before finding out more about what the problem is and then finding the most appropriate solution. While this answer shows that you want to take ownership of the problem and try to fix it, it’s likely that recruiters would see this as going too far beyond your authority without consulting somebody more senior.
  4. This answer does not show that you are addressing the issue at all. Recruiters will want to see that you can tackle difficult situations directly and tactfully, rather than trying to avoid them.
  5. Again, this answer does not address the problem at all. Recruiters will want to see that you understand good customer service and can understand the client’s concerns, find out more about what the problem is, and think carefully about how it could be addressed in a way that will be positive for both your client and your employer.

What is the graduate employer really asking?

  • How do you react when something goes wrong?
  • Can you take responsibility for solving a problem?
  • Do you have good communication skills?
  • Do you know when it’s appropriate to involve more senior colleagues?
  • Do you understand who our clients are, what their needs are, and how our products or services meet that need?

How you should tackle the question ‘What would you do if a client complained?’

Remember that you can ask questions to make sure you understand what the interviewer wants to know, or to ask for more details on the hypothetical situation to guide your responses.

In some sectors, you may be given a very detailed scenario or a lot of context around the question – in this case, try to pick out the most important clues that can help you to answer the question. What was the client was expecting? Why are they unhappy? What is the nature of the employer’s relationship with the client – are they a very important client who does a lot of business with your employer? Who are the key people who you need to communicate with in order to address the situation?

Graduate recruiters will want you to show that you have good customer service instincts – for example that you know it is important that an unhappy client feels listened to. The interviewer will want you to show that you can handle difficult situations well, taking responsibility appropriately, using excellent communication skills, and showing commercial awareness. You can always say that you would refer to any policies that are in place, or ask your manager. This shows that you have an awareness of wider context of the organisation.

To impress graduate recruiters, your answer should show that your communication skills are top-notch and that you can acknowledge the client’s concerns, find out more about what they felt the problem was, and then work towards resolving the situation in an appropriate way – including showing an understanding of the balance between taking responsibility yourself and involving others appropriately.

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