No matter how impeccably your business is run, you're going to get complaints.

Customers will call you, angered by a mistake you or a member of your team made. And employees will air grievances, feeling management has been unfair to them. How you handle these situations can make or break your company.

When the inevitable complaints come, it's natural to get defensive and explain why the person's complaint isn't legitimate--but that never gets you anywhere.

Instead, embrace each criticism you get, whether from employee or customer, as an opportunity to strengthen a relationship. Remember that a person who complains probably has interest in continuing his relationship with you--and will do so, if you efficiently handle the problem.

The following four steps--uncomplicated, yet effective in nearly every situation--will help you defuse complaints and turn an unhappy person into a loyal fan.

1. Listen with an open mind.

Hear what the person has to say without prejudging the situation. Let the person speak his mind fully, without interruption and without questioning the validity of the problem. Before you say anything, you should fully understand what has happened and precisely why the person is upset.

2. Repeat the problem back.

Once you see where the complaint is coming from, repeat it back in your own words so the person knows you've grasped her position. She might correct you on a few points, but keep parroting her position back to her until she acknowledges that you've gotten it right.

3. Empathize and assure that something will be done.

Without admitting any fault on the part of the company or placing blame on anyone, say this:

The way you've described this, I'd be unhappy, too, if I were in your shoes. Let me see what I can do. I'll check this out and get right back to you as soon as possible.

Showing your sincere empathy will help neutralize any anger the person feels. In the vast majority of cases, you'll be amazed by how quickly this assurance calms the person.

4. Follow up promptly.

As soon as possible, follow up with a report on what went wrong and the steps you plan to take to rectify the situation and prevent it from happening again. In some cases, you may even wish to send a small gift as a token of thanks for the person's help in improving your business.

The goal of this process is to show the customer that you truly care about his patronage or the employee about her work on behalf of the company. Make sure all your employees know to use this process with their customers and that all managers know to use it with employees.

When you approach complaints and criticism with openness, empathy, and a sincere desire to help, you'll significantly strengthen your business.