Make It Easy for Customers to Complain

June 9th, 2016
Steven Howard

You Can Only Fix Those Customer Problems You Hear About

Two of the key points from the prior Powerful Marketing Memo titled Customer Complaints Are Good are:

1) complaints will happen because mistakes will happen, and

2) customers who complain are customers who care.

Therefore, knowing that you are going to get complaints and knowing that such complaints are good for you, it makes sense to have a complaint management strategy in place that not only focuses on resolving the various customer issues that crop up but that also systematically turns customer complaints into learning opportunities for the entire organization.

The first component of your complaint management strategy is that you should make it easy for customers to complain.

“What?” I can hear many of you saying. “Make it easier for customers to complain, so that we actually get more complaints?”

But that’s exactly what your goal should be — to drive in more complaints. After all, if you do not hear about the problems your customers are having with your products, services, or staff then how are you going to go about fixing these?

Secondly, when a customer has a complaint, and they run into hurdles and barriers trying to voice their complaint to someone, all they do is get angrier and angrier. The result is a small problem develops into a multi-faceted larger one, simply because the customer cannot find a way to channel their concerns, anger, fears, worries, questions, or complaints to your organization in a timely and convenient manner.

This is particularly true when it comes to the information posted on your website.  Few things seem to infuriate customers more these days than not being able to find the right contact details on an organization’s website for lodging a complaint, or for speaking to someone other than a call center “service rep.”

Thus, there are two key benefits from making it easy for customers to complain:

1) your customers do not get angrier and more upset from the additional frustrations of trying to contact your organization, and

2) you have more opportunities to fix initial, small problems before they evolve into larger and harder to resolve ones.

Part of your complaint management strategy needs to emphasize to all employees, especially the first tier and second tier staff who routinely have to deal with 90% of customer complaints, that service recovery starts with how you react to complaints.

Unfortunately, for too many organizations the initial reaction to a customer complaint is either defensive (trying to push the blame back onto the customer) or process driven (having a focus on a speedy resolution so that the frontline service staff can rapidly move onto the next customer complaint).

This approach often has unintended negative consequences, as customers end up feeling that they have been handled in a non-personalized fashion or have been quickly served so that another customer’s situation can take priority. This is not to say that speed and prompt resolutions are not appreciated; however it is important to understand that the manner in which swift results are delivered can be perceived as dehumanizing and robotic.

A good example of this is when an organization’s email auto responder system sends out the highly depersonalizing “thank you for your enquiry, we will get back to you promptly” message when an email of complaint is sent via the organization’s website.  Please note:  an email (or letter) of complaint is not an enquiry. It is an attempt to get a humanized and customized resolution to a situation that your customer find unpalatable. It should not be responded to in the same manner as an email asking a general product or service question.

Additionally, in the most unfortunate situations, another unintended negative consequence of the focus on speed is that the customer actually walks away feeling unheard and that his or her true, underlining complaint was not surfaced, ignored, overlooked, or not fully understood. The result is that customers feel it is difficult to voice their complaints to the organization, and may end up deciding that it is far easier to take their business elsewhere than to continue dealing with an organization that fails to listen and comprehend.

It is for this reason that I advocate changing customer service staff into customer satisfaction staff, who are then measured on their abilities to deliver complete satisfaction to customers, rather than by quantitative indicators such as the number of calls handled, the number of customers served, and the “average time per service transaction. It is not a matter of semantics, but of a philosophical approach of being fully customer focused and pro-active in the area of customer satisfaction, rather than being reactive and process driven in determining customer service standards.

One interesting thing I have noticed is that customers are more acute listeners and observers when they are angry and that they notice every little detail about how they are being treated and what steps the organization is taking to settle a dispute. As a result, each and every thing done by someone representing the organization, including outsourced contract staff such as those in call centers, is noted and mentally recorded by upset customers. This is especially true for any attempts to forestall the customer from complaining or to thwart their desires to be fully heard and understood.

Customers willingly play these details back to the next level of management, or to anyone else who will listen — including your other customers and prospects — at a moment’s notice. This not only lengthens the time it takes to eventually solve the original customer complaint, but it also means all additional dissatisfaction incurred by the customer while engaged in the settlement process must now also be dealt with. This leads to additional costs to the organization, in terms of both staff hours and the eventual compensation to the customer, as well as an unsatisfying feeling all around for the customer, staff, and management.

All this could be alleviated, of course, if you simply made it easier for customers to complain in the first place.

In the next Powerful Marketing Memo we will share our thoughts on how to effectively handle informal and formal complaints.

In the meantime, whenever you receive a customer complaint be sure to thank the customer for their feedback and use this situation as an opportunity to re-dedicate your staff to eliminating the problems, errors, mistakes, and other factors that cause customer complaints rather than trying to just eliminate the complaints themselves.

Handling customer complaints properly impacts all current and future customers — and starts with processes, procedures, and systems that make it easy for such complaints to be communicated to your organization.

So, make it easy and convenient for your customers to complain. You will be glad you did. For the benefits will be for you and the organization to reap.

Key Point: make it easy for customers to complain to your organization.

Taking Action: how are customer complaints handled in your organization? Are they processed and handled as quickly and efficiently as possible, and then forgotten? What can be done so that customer complaints are fully voiced and understood?

What steps are needed to turn the efficient handling of complaints into learning opportunities for your organization?

How is customer service monitored and measured in your organization? What does your customer service “scorecard” look like? Does it include measurements for how lessons from the frontline are circulated to other staff, used in training courses, and incorporated into new employee orientation programs?


This post is excerpted from our book Powerful Marketing Memos, available at Amazon in paperback ($10.88) and Kindle ($3.88) formats.

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