Service with a smile

Turn Customer Complaints into Praise

Most business people are afraid of customer complaints and react inappropriately when the customer complains. Complaints, properly handled, actually provide an opportunity for building a brand reputation for quality service and for improving the product itself.

Customers’ Perception of Quality is Reality

Customers frequently have a different view of quality to the supplier. They take the intrinsic technical quality of the product and service for granted and place more emphasis on the “peripheral” service issues such as delivery, availability of sales staff, and how quickly the telephone is answered.

Similarly many of the complaints will be about these issues and managers should use the complaint as a spur to improving performance in such areas. They can be seen as an ongoing customer satisfaction survey and be used accordingly.

Bad News Travels Fast, But So Can Good

It is often said that bad news travels fast and it is certainly true dissatisfied customers. Many figures are quoted; it used to be said: someone who has had good service will tell four others whereas the person who is unhappy will tell 17. With online blogging it is now considerably more and is immediately global.

Worse than someone who complains is the unhappy customers who just tells everyone they meet how bad a company’s service is. Such people are known as “product terrorists” because they are doing harm to the brand which is impossible to deal with directly. At least when someone complains the spread of bad news can be nipped in the bud. That is where the opportunity for using complaints to advantage lies.

Consider companies who have a reputation for providing quality both in their products and services and many lists include Marks and Spencer and Volvo. In such cases the basic quality is good but probably not significantly better than many of their competitors. So how have those reputations been built?

Build a Brand Reputation for Quality

They have done it, in part at least, by how they handle complaints. Marks and Spencer has long been renowned for its willingness to exchange goods. Any unhappiness with a purchase and it was possible to get a refund without any fuss or questions being asked. In fact for many years not even a receipt was needed.

It spawned all sorts of stories such as the retired major who bought his underwear from M and S; every few months he took it back for replacement. It was changed without question and the major never needed to buy new underwear again. The story may well be apocryphal but that is not important. It generates a particular belief in the mind of the public especially when reinforced by other, similar tales. It created the sense that Marks and Spencer gives a quality service.

Volvo acquired much the same reputation even though, based on known experience; their failure rate was perhaps actually a little higher than would have been expected. Yet people bought another Volvo. Why? The Volvo and dealer used the problems to their advantage: while the problem was being resolved the owner always had the use of a loan car, their own vehicle was valeted and they were kept fully informed on progress. So, exceptional service supporting a competent but apparently ordinary product gives the customer an overall sense of quality.

It can work the other way – all the jokes about Skoda created the opposite impression. Even when Skoda produced the Favorit, which was regarded as better than Ford’s Fiesta, the jokes continued. Even now they are not fully forgotten so Skoda have had to work hard to get rid of that old image and to maintain their hard won regard.


Complaints Are an Opportunity

The message is that complaints should be treated seriously however unreasonable they may seem. It should be fully dealt with quickly and effectively. By doing so the unhappy customer who was going to tell 17 friends how bad the product was will then tell them how wonderful service was when he had a problem – it shows how astute they were and made a good choice. A reputation for quality is being established.

Handling Complaints for Positive Benefit

The first thing to do is to listen to both to what is being said and what is being implied – they may not be the same. Arguing with customers or telling them they they are wrong will only make matters worse. The aim is to calmly understand their concerns and to take the heat out of the situation so that a course of action can be agreed. There is a need to avoid being too effusive or overly bright and breezy as it may be perceived that the problem is not being take seriously Polite and calm is the best approach.

Asking the customer what is needed to put the matter right is a sound start; although some will try it on most; people are reasonable and suggest a sensible solution. It is necessary to understand not just what has gone wrong with the product but the consequence for the customer of that failure. They may be distressed because they made promises to others who they have to disappoint or let down because of the problem with the service.

Working With the Customer to Solve the Problem

Working with the customer in solving those underlying difficulties as well as the problems with the product, is the key to success.. The sooner action is taken the cheaper it will be to resolve and the happier the customer will be. If effective action is taken straight away the problem will vanish whereas if it is allowed to linger it will grow out of all proportion in the customer’s mind.

The complaint is an opportunity to make the customer feel good about the business. Also consider that with the increasing use of online services that a complaint may be the only opportunity for personal contact the business has with the customer.

Allowing and Expecting Front-line Staff to Resolve Complaints

Another piece of customer folk-lore is about a store on the West Coast of the USA. Someone bought a new suit and was promised alterations would be made before he needed to fly from Los Angeles to Chicago. Unfortunately his suit was not ready. The store apologised profusely and refunded his money without any fuss. When he arrived at his hotel in Chicago there was package waiting for him containing his suit and complimentary shirt and tie. The menswear department manager, not the store manager, had taken upon himself to sort the customers real problem of not having a smart, new suit for an important meeting.

The story makes an important point. Everyone who comes into contact with customers has to be given considerable authority to sort out complaints. An angry customer will not take kindly being passed from pillar to post – all she wants is a solution NOW. That requires training, real authority and support when staff take actions. Such local resolutions should be used as a learning opportunity to inform and drive improvement of the product and customer service culture across the whole organisation.


Decisive and Effective Action, Taken Quickly

Handling Complaints

  • Listen to the Customer

  • Understand the problem and the difficulty it causes

  • Find out what is needed to put the matter right. Ask the customer

  • Agree a course of action

  • Take the action quickly, effectively and without fuss

  • Then go a bit further - do something personal for the customer or better someone close who was affected

  • Check that the action solved the problem and next time the customer is seen

  • Try harder with all customers

  • Remember it is harder to find new customers than keep existing ones - especially in harsh economic times

  • Avoid complacency

Once a course of action has been identified that will the resolve the customer’s complaint it should be put in place as quickly as possible. The sooner the problem is solved; the sooner the customer is going to be praising the business, strengthening the brand. Delay, and apart from the spreading bad news the customer’s demand will increase. Providing satisfaction will become more difficult, and expensive.

The problems of the supplier and its staff are of no concern to the customer. Dissatisfied customers do not want hear how hard people have tried to meet their expectations. As there is a complaint, that effort has been ineffective and is not the complainant’s problem. Indeed it may just confirm his view that the company is incompetent or at best ineffectual. This is not good for building a brand’s reputation!

Although a customer should not be rude or threatening anger should not be taken personally – usually it is more frustration and the loss of control of the situation than real anger. Retaliation in kind is inappropriate but rather a calming approach that takes the problem seriously will defuse the situation. Blaming other inside or outside the business will only exacerbate the problem as it is of no concern to the customer – the supplier of the product or service is being paid by the customer to manage those issues.

So as suggested earlier a good response is to choose the best solution for the customer and then go a little further. Solving the problem on the cheap will be obvious and will do more harm than good over the long term.

Personal Service in Increasingly Automated World

Simply providing a service or product that meets customers’ expectations will not build a special reputation. They take for granted that the product will do what it claims. As result customers will rarely promote the product or be in contact with a supplier. As has been suggested with online services and sales there may be no opportunity to have personal contact with customers except through relatively artificial means such as focus groups etc.

So a complaint may be the only opportunity for personal or, even better, face to face contact with the customer. It then becomes and opportunity to learn from the customer and to build a personal relationship with that customers, and indirectly, their friends and family. It should be used wisely and not wasted – getting similar involvement with customers will be at least as expensive and probably less effective.

During a series of workshops for improving customer service in a major bank it was suggested that it might be useful to create the occasional low-level complaint so as to generate a face to face contact with the customer. The suggestion was then be to give exceptional service in resolving the complaint. The participants were conscious of how personal contact in banking was declining due to online and automated banking so they needed to be creative. Whilst not recommended it is an interesting thought...

Complaints Handling Can Build Brand Reputation for Quality Excellence

So the secret is that complaints should be accepted with good grace and a solution satisfactory (and a little more) to the customer found. Then the actions should be taken quickly and without fuss to complete resolution of the complaint . Adopt such an approach and a brand’s fame will spread surprisingly quickly - but so will infamy if it only pays lip-service, or worse, to customer service.

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