Customer’s complaints organisations should view as gifts

Customers who don’t complain to the organisation usually go and do something far worse they tell their friends, associates and perfect strangers about it. And everyone knows how damaging bad word-of mouth publicity can be. The most casual “I had a quite a bad experience there once,” from a friend is enough to undo millions of rupees worth of advertising and celebrity endorsements.

If a complaint is simply a statement about expectations that have not been met, some of the blame is on advertising. Companies raise expectations through expensive advertising campaigns, but then don’t spend money on training their customer-facing staff to meet those expectations. American Express, which once ran a campaign saying “you’re more than just a number to us” . But, when a customer called their number, the inescapable first question still was ‘what is your number’?

American Express withdrew the ad when it realised how silly it was making the company look (TV show comics couldn’t get enough of it). Other companies suffer more long-lasting damage on account of a mismatch between real and expected service. Research shows that the average service brand loses 50% of its customers every five years and 97% of the multiple switchers say it was bad service that made them leave.

Bad service is far more than the lack of tender loving care. It’s the airline whose delayed flight results in a missed meeting; the restaurant that serves stale food; the insurance company which takes its time processing claims or the manufacturer whose TV, cell phone or washing machine breaks down a month after its warranty period.

Faced with these kinds of situations, customers don’t always register a formal complaint. The reasons vary according to the personality of the customer, but some of the common ones are: ‘It would cost more to complain’, or ‘I didn’t know who to talk to,’ or ‘The last time I complained, nothing happened,’ or ‘I’d probably get more upset. It’s better to just drop it’.

When customers complain it’s a sign that they care enough about the company to give it another chance. But quite often, companies blow that chance. Some don’t respond to complaints at all while others just say ‘sorry, there’s nothing we can do’. Some blame the customer with a ‘you must have handled it wrong’ or ‘you should have come to us earlier’. Others pass the customer all over the organisation till he or she gives up. The worst ones launch into an interrogation with questions like ‘how do we know what you say is true?’

It takes grit to complain to a large corporate about its service and research shows the one most likely to do it is a young, upwardly mobile male. Companies don’t like complaining customers, and in some extreme cases they are actually viewed as blackmailers out to get a free replacement or activists who might haul the company to court if it admits to any wrong-doing. You can’t build your policies around the occasional customer who lodges fraudulent complaints.

Organisations should view complaints as gifts and train their staff to receive them with a “thank you for bringing this to our notice,” followed by an explanation of why the feedback is valuable (“it will help us improve in future” or “it gives us an opportunity to fix things for you”). Previously in conflict with the company, this approach unites the customer with the company as a partner, fighting the problem.

The next step in the process is the apology, which is rendered only after the customer explains what went wrong. “Companies feel why they should say sorry if they were not at fault. But it has nothing to do with blame or fault. It’s like when you meet someone who has experienced a death in the family. When you say ‘I’m so sorry,’ you’re not taking responsibility for the death by expressing your sorrow.

The next step is a promise to do something about the problem immediately. By then, the customers should usually be in a positive, receptive frame of mind if they were angry, they would have cooled down and the service representative can get down to the nitty gritty of asking for all the information required to process the complaint. What this entails depends on company policy and may stretch from replacing the product to offering a discount on future purchases, but whatever it is, it’s worthwhile to get back to the customer and ask if he or she is satisfied with what has been done. And lastly, every complaint is a learning opportunity for the organisation, more so if the compensation is expensive.

If complaints are a gift, companies need to make the process as easy for the customer as possible. Today, most companies have call centers and it’s important that their staff is adequately trained to handle angry customers without taking it personally. Then there are customers who prefer writing and send letters or e-mail. The company should respond with a personalised letter, rather than a standardised one.

The cost of having disgruntled customers out there has escalated in the internet era, and companies need to monitor what is being said about them in the net. One financial company has taken it too far by threatening anyone who writes negative things about it with legal action. The goal is not to eliminate negative feedback but to be aware of it.

Another bad strategy some companies employ is to anonymously write positive things about themselves and bad mouth their competitors. Any hint of pretence on the Web is bad and may come back to haunt the organisation later. Instead, companies need to engage in real conversations with customers. These can even be guided to blogs on the company website, but at the same time, they shouldn’t be PR devices.

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