How to complain and deal with complaints on the phone

Summary: What to say and what not to say when you complain by telephone and receive complaints on the phone.

Telephoning can be the most difficult communication skill, and dealing with negative situations such as problems and complaints is the trickiest situation that most people come across. Dealing with complaints on the phone is therefore a double challenge. This article gives a brief guide to what to do and what not to do when you have to complain or someone complains to you on the telephone. For model dialogues of this and other typical phone calls, intensive practice of the most important phrases for all kinds of calls, self-study speaking tasks and many tips on how to really learn the language of telephoning, see the e-book Really Learn the Most Useful Telephoning Phrases.  

Starting complaint phone calls/Leading up to complaints on the phone

The most important part of smoothly making and dealing with complaints is how you start. As in complaints by email and face to face communication, this generally means starting complaints as slowly and indirectly as you can.

With people you already know, one nice way to start slowly and indirectly is to start with some small talk, like:

Receiver: “Good morning. HYH Limited. Alex Case speaking. How can I help you?”

Caller: “Hi Alex. This is Johannes.”

Receiver: “Oh, hi Johannes. How’s it going? How was your trip to Paris?”

Caller: “Not bad. The weather wasn’t so good, but we had time to go to a couple of good restaurants.”

Receiver: “Sounds nice. So, what can I do for you (today)?”

Caller: “I’m phoning about the invoice you sent last night.”

Receiver: “Sure. I thought it might be about that. Did I get something wrong again?”

Caller: “Well,…”


If the receiver doesn’t invite you to get to the topic of the call with a phrase like “So, how can I help you today?”, you can get to that point in a suitably indirect way with phrases like:

-       Caller: “Anyway, do you have time to talk?”

-       Caller: “So, have you got a minute (to talk)?”

-       Caller: “So, is this a good time?”

-       Caller: “Are you free to talk?”

-       Caller: “Have I phoned at a bad time?”


Especially with new and/ or important business relationships, you can lead up to the topic of the phone call with polite phrases like:

-       Caller: “Sorry to phone so early in the morning/ so late in the evening/ at lunchtime/ last thing on Friday but…”

-       Caller: “Sorry to ring again so soon but…”

-       Caller: “Sorry to trouble you again but…”

-       Caller: “I’m sure you’re very busy, but…”

-       Caller: “I’m not sure if I’ve got the right number, but…”


These stages are useful for starting all kinds of phone calls, but particularly important when something negative like a complaint is coming after them. 


Making complaints by telephone

When it comes to mentioning the topic of the complaint, it is again best to be indirect and take your time. The easiest and most common way to do this is to first of all give the topic of the call without saying that there is a problem associated with it yet, with phrases like:

-       Caller: “I’m phoning about my stay in your hotel last week.”

-       Caller: “I’m calling about the latest batch of eggs.”

-       Caller: “I need to speak to someone about my laptop computer (which I bought from you last month).”

-       Caller: “You remember that I ordered some samples of the new model last week?”

-       Caller: “So, did you see my email about…?”

-       Caller: “Well, just a quick call about…”


I’d avoid sentences by giving the topic of your call more directly like “I’m phoning to complain about…”, “I’m calling because there is a problem with…”, etc. And I certainly would never start the reply to “How can I help you?” with an actual complaining phrase like “I’m not very happy with…”


If you just give the general topic of the call in the right way, the receiver should hopefully have some idea from just the subject and your tone of voice that some kind of bad news is coming and reply with a question asking for more details such as:

-       Receiver: “Of course. How can I help you?”

-       Receiver: “Sure. Is there some kind of problem?”

-       Receiver: “Oh, yes. Is it okay?”

-       Receiver: “Oh, yes. That was the HRG891, wasn’t it? Is everything okay?”

-       Receiver: “Ah. I was thinking you might ring about that. Did you think that…?”

-       Receiver: “I should be able to help. What (exactly) can I do for you (today)?”


Once the complaining part of the call starts, there are two main things that the caller usually wants to achieve:

  1. explaining the problem
  2. getting some kind of action from the receiver to sort the problem out, make up for the problem and/ or stop the same thing happening again

Again, it is generally best to work your way through those things as slowly and indirectly as you can.


We usually make a complaint softer and delay it a bit longer by starting with a transitions phrase like “Well,…”, “So,…” or “The thing is…” To be as indirect as possible, another possibility is to follow that transitions phrase with a mention of what you expected before you get to what actually happened with phrases like:

-       Caller: “(According to…), … was supposed to…”

-       Caller: “… should have…”

-       Caller: “I read on your website that…”

-       Caller: “I expected…”

-       Caller: “I imagined…”

-       Caller: “In the past,…”

-       Caller: “I was promised…”

-       Caller: “The contract states that…”

-       Caller: “Usually, in these kinds of situations,…”

-       Caller: “With previous suppliers we have always found that…”


When you get down to the actual complaint, it is quite common to start with giving bad news language. Although it is almost certainly not your fault, these phrases are quite similar to apologising phrases, e.g.

-       Caller: “I’m afraid…”

-       Caller: “Unfortunately…”

-       Caller: “I’m sorry to say that…”

-       Caller: “Sorry to inconvenience you but…”

-       Caller: “I regret to (have to) say that/ inform you that…”


Typical words and phrases to explain the actual complaints include:

-       Caller: “there has been a problem with…”

-       Caller: “there is an issue with…”

-       Caller: “there is something wrong with…”

-       Caller: “we’re having some trouble with…”

-       Caller: “… is missing.”

-       Caller: “… doesn’t work (properly).”

-       Caller: “… didn’t arrive (on time).”/ “…hasn’t arrived (yet).”

-       Caller: “… isn’t (quite) what I ordered.”

-       Caller: “… doesn’t (exactly) match…”

-       Caller: “… wasn’t (quite) what I expected”

-       Caller: "I’m not very happy with…”

-       Caller: “I was given the wrong information about…”/ “I was misinformed about…”

-       Caller: “…is/ was late/ delayed.”

-       Caller: “… doesn’t match your usual standards.”

-       Caller: “… isn’t suitable for…”

-       Caller: “… isn’t compatible with…”

-       Caller: “... didn’t pass our tests”

-       Caller: “… is out of date.”

-       Caller: “… isn’t… enough.”/ “… isn’t sufficiently…”

-       Caller: “… is too…”


You can make those complaints phrases softer with typical hedging language/ diplomatic language like “seems to”, “appears to”, “looks like”, “some kind of”, “not completely”, “somewhat”, “a little”, “a bit”, etc, making versions of the phrases above like:

-       Caller: “There has been some kind of a problem with…”

-       Caller: “There seems to be an issue with…”

-       Caller: “There appears to be something wrong with…

-       Caller: “It looks like… doesn’t work”


Responding to complaints on the phone

Once the complaint has been made, the receiver will generally reply with at least a sympathetic phrase to show their concern and that they understand the feelings of the caller such as (in approximate order of usefulness):

-       Receiver: “I’m (very) sorry to hear that.”

-       Receiver: “That must be very inconvenient/ annoying/ …”/ “You must be very worried/ stressed/…”

-       Receiver: “Hmmm, that is a problem!”

-       Receiver: “That sounds terrible/ awful.”

-       Receiver: “That sounds like a (right) pain.”

-       Receiver: “(Well) I can understand why you might not be happy with that.”

-       Receiver: “You surprise me!”

-       Receiver: “No? Really? (Please tell me more and I’ll try to find out what happened.)”

-       Receiver: “Wow. I wonder how that could have happened.”

-       Receiver: “Again? I don’t know to say!”

-       Receiver: “Is that so? I can understand how you must feel about that.”

-       Receiver: “I can see how you might be…”


Some similar phrases such as “That’s a shame”/ “That’s a pity” are too impersonal to be suitable for this kind of situation. “I see” is completely unsuitable as it sounds like you are suspicious whether what they are saying is true or not and are waiting for more details before you apologise.   


The main reason for using sympathising phrases like those above is to not accept responsibility for something that has gone wrong unless you really have to, or at least not accept any blame until you really know what the problem is. However, in many situations and in many cultures it is better to simply apologise, even if it isn’t your fault. Nice phrases for apologising include (in approximate order of how often you can use them):

-       Receiver: “I’m (really/ so/ very) sorry about that.”

-       Receiver: “Please accept my/ our (sincerest) apologies (for any inconvenience caused/ for…)”

-       Receiver: “I really am (very/ terribly/ most terribly) sorry (about that).”

-       Receiver: “I do apologise”

-       Receiver: “I’m really/ so sorry for the inconvenience.”

-       Receiver: “I apologize wholeheartedly/ unreservedly.”

-       Receiver: “I cannot say/ express how sorry I am (about that).”

-       Receiver: “I (of course) take full responsibility for…”

“We”, “us” and “our” can also be used in place of “I”, “me” and “my”. “I’m afraid…” is giving bad news rather than an apology and so does not match this situation.


If the receiver already knows why the problem happened, this is probably a good time to explain that, with phrases like:

-       Receiver: “This was because…”

-       Receiver: “The (main) reason for this is…”

-       Receiver: “This was caused by…”

-       Receiver: “(Actually,) I can explain that. It…”

Note that although in some cultures giving reasons is looked at negatively, perhaps because it seems like avoiding accepting responsibility, in English it is usually considered polite to give reasons in as much detail as possible.


Especially if the complaint is news to the receiver, they will then probably want to know more about the problem. The questions of course depend on the situation and problem, but in general they should be polite indirect questions, given the sensitivity of the situation. Maybe after something like “To sort this out,…”/ “So I can find a solution,…” to show why you are interrogating the caller, good starters for polite questions include:

-       Receiver: “Can I just check (what the problem is)?”

-       Receiver: “Can I ask (what aspect of it you aren’t happy with)?”

-       Receiver: “Could you tell me (when you were expecting it to arrive)?”

-       Receiver: “I just need to check (if you mean)…”

-       Receiver: “I just need to know (a few more details).”

-       Receiver: “Would you mind telling me (the order number)?”


The receiver may also have to take some of those details down and/ or find the relevant information during the conversation, needing phrases for asking people to wait like “Just a moment while I get the information up on the screen” and double checking phrases such as “Can I check that back?” and “So, it’s… Is that right?” There is a separate article on this site on this topic.


Before or after finding out more details, the receiver should probably promise some kind of action, usually starting with “(If you…,) I’ll…”, “Shall I…?”, “Would you like me to…?” or “We’d like to offer you…” Examples include:

-       Receiver: “If you send it back, I’ll be happy to give you a full refund.”

-       Receiver: “I’ll check what has happened to the order and phone you right back.”

-       Receiver: “Would you like me to send you a replacement?”

-       Receiver: “Shall I get an engineer to come round and check it?”

-       Receiver: “To make up for that, we’d like to offer you…”


Getting an acceptable response to your telephone complaint

If the receiver doesn’t offer some kind of action, it could be that they don’t want to accept responsibility and/ or don’t want to take any action. It’s still best for the caller to broach the subject of actions politely, getting progressively pushier if you aren’t happy with what they offer after that. Suitable phrases for mentioning the actions that you expect (for the first time) include:

-       Caller: “Could you (possibly)…?”

-       Caller: “It would be a great help if you could…”

-       Caller: “I’d be really grateful/ happy/ glad if you could…”

-       Caller: “If you could…, that would help make up for it.”

-       Caller: “Given that, I’d like to ask for…”

-       Caller: “Given that situation, would it be possible for you to…?”

-       Caller: “If possible, I’d like you to…”


The demands can be vague or precise. Typical vague demands include “… sort it out”, “… chase this up”, “… see what you can do” and “… do something about it”. More specific demands depend a lot on the situation but often include refunds, replacements, (free) repairs, better products or services in the future, or at least finding out why the problem happened and stopping it happening again. Phrases like “Would you…?” and “I’d like you to…” are actually commands rather than requests, and so are not usually suitable for a first request for action and should be saved for much more aggressive complaints. Pushier demanding language between those two extremes includes:

-       Caller: “According to the contract, I should be able to get…”

-       Caller: “I think I deserve…”

-       Caller: “In this kind of situation, it seems normal to me to…”


Positive replies to requests for action include:

-       Receiver: “Of course. I’ll do that straightaway.”

-       Receiver: “That’s no problem. I’ll deal with it right away.”

-       Receiver: “It’s the least I can do. I’ll make sure it happens (by close of business) today.”

-       Receiver: “Sure. I was just about to suggest that myself.”

-       Receiver: “That is no problem at all. I’ll investigate it fully and get back to you by the end of this week.”


Typical positive replies to that are:

-       Caller: “Thanks. That will/ would be very helpful.”

-       Caller: “I’m very happy to hear that. Thanks.”

-       Caller: “That’s a (real) relief to hear.”/ “That’s put my mind at rest.”


Polite negative replies to requests for action include:

-       Receiver: “Hmm, that might be a bit difficult.”

-       Receiver: “To be honest, I’m not sure that we can do that.”

-       Receiver: “I’m afraid in this kind of situation we usually…”

-       Receiver: “I’m sorry but for that you’d need to talk to…”

-       Receiver: “Unfortunately, it’s not generally our policy to…”

-       Receiver: “While I understand your problem, in these cases it is normal to…”

-       Receiver: “I can see why you might ask for that, but actually…”


If you have to accept that negative reply and/ or think it is reasonable, answers include:

-       Caller: “Okay. I understand your position. Thanks anyway.”

-       Caller: “I suppose you’re right. Oh well, never mind.”

-       Caller: “Yes, I can see how that might be difficult. Anyway, I just thought you should know how we feel.”


More negative ways of accepting what they say include:

-       Caller: “I see.”

-       Caller: “Okay. Well, I guess there is nothing I can do (then).”

-       Caller: “Well, I guess I have no option but to accept that (then).”

-       Caller: “Right. Well, in that case…”


Either side could also suggest an alternative course of action:

-       Receiver: “However, we can offer you…”

-       Receiver: “Instead of that, how about…?”

-       Receiver: “Hopefully you can accept… instead.”

-       Caller: “In that case, how about…?”

-       Caller: “Can I suggest… instead then?”

-       Caller: “If that’s impossible, what about…?”


Perhaps the last resorts are just insisting on what you demanded and referring the decision to a third party. Insisting phrases include:

-       Caller: “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to insist on that.”

-       Caller: “(As I said) (I think you’ll find that) according to our agreement…”

-       Caller: “I’m afraid that’s not really acceptable. Please reconsider.”

-       Caller: “If you are unable to accede to my demands, I’m afraid I will have to…”


Some referring the problem to someone else phrases are:

-       Receiver/ Caller: “I’ll check with my boss and…”

-       Receiver: “The person you need to speak to about this is… I’ll just get his/ her number for you”


Ending complaint phone calls

When dealing with the complaint seems to have come to some kind of a (positive or negative) conclusion, the smoothest way to continue is usually for the receiver to check if the caller is finished with phrases like “So, is/ was there anything else (I can help you with/ you would like to report/ you want to talk about?” The usual replies are “No, that’s all (for now), thanks” and “Actually, there is just one more thing….” The caller can also move towards that point with phrases like:

-       Caller: “So, I think that’s all I needed to discuss, thanks.”

-       Caller: “Well, I think that’s dealt with everything, thank you”

-       Caller: “Well then, that seems to have covered everything, thanks.”

-       Caller: “Okay. That’s been really helpful, thanks.”

-       Caller: “Okay, I won’t keep you any longer, then.”


After that, the final couple of lines before “(Good)bye” depend a lot on how well the rest of the call went and what the future actions will be. Possibilities include:

-       Caller: “Thanks for all your help.”

-       Caller: “I look forward to your call.”

-       Caller/ Receiver: “Speak to you soon.”

-       Receiver: “Please let me know if there are any other problems.”

-       Receiver: “As I said, I’ll phone back…”

-       Receiver: “Thanks (again) for letting us know.”


Note that moving straight to these kinds of phrases without a stage like those above can seem a bit sudden in English.


It can also be nice to forget about the stressful phone call with something lighter and unconnected like “Have a good weekend”.


Ending a phone call phrases which more match a negative situation, but hopefully not in a too direct way, include:

-       Receiver: “Sorry I couldn’t be more help.”

-       Receiver: “Hope I can be more help next time.”

-       Caller: “Thanks anyway.”

-       Receiver: “Thanks for your understanding.”

-       Receiver: “Thanks for your patience.”


Over 100 pages of exercises to help memorise and practise the most important telephoning phrases and make sure you can really use them in your own real phone calls, including speaking practice you can do on your own, are available in Really Learn the Most Useful Telephoning Phrases.

Copyright © 2016

Written by Alex Case for

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