Customers are often delighted if a business simply delivers what has been promised. However, we all know that customers are also increasingly aware of their rights and ready to complain when they perceive that they have received a poor service or experienced a product fault. Customers are judging businesses based on their problem solving skills and more and more companies are finding out that their ability to put things right when they go wrong will impact on their reputation in the marketplace.
The successful resolution of customer complaints is driven by the complaint handling skills and expertise within a company's customer service teams. Much has already been written about how to best handle complaints - such as highlighting the need to actively listen and make a empathetic connection with the customer story. But complaint handling is a tactical environment - what strategies can be deployed to achieve complaint management successes? Here are my top ten 10 tips that will not only allow you to maximise the potential of your complaint management strategy to deliver better services and products but also wow those customers that experience product and service failures and turn them into loyal brand advocates.
Target reductions in dissatisfied customers and detractors
Some companies still consider complaints to be a negative and senior management will often require the implementation of a complaint reduction strategy. Is this the right approach? Maybe, we should focus on maximising the potential for complaint management to reduce customer dissatisfaction and maximise customer advocacy?
A customer who takes the time to complain and is confident that someone will listen and take action is a customer who wants to be loyal. A company with a high level of complaints might be open and responsive to customers rather than having a high level of customer dissatisfaction.
If we develop and set targets for reducing complaints, we might adversely affect internal behaviours within our company - reducing our willingness to listen to customers and simply build a mechanism that handles only the most serious or persistent of complaints.
The complaining customer is often wanting to continue an existing relationship - despite the fact that something is wrong. During early 2010, a survey commissioned by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) found that 82 per cent - four out of five people - said their response to poor service would be to tell their friends and family never to use a business and almost a third said they would write a negative review. Some respondents of course commented that - with the increasing use of social media - they would 'Tweet' about a company or set up a Facebook complaints group.
The OFT survey also confirmed the benefits to companies of good service - of the consumers who received good service, 85 per cent said they would recommend that company to their friends and family. One in three said that they would contact the business to thank them - take a look at your compliments, how many of them were prompted by an employee solving a problem or complaint?
Understand customer emotions
A SOCAP Australia study of consumer emotions found that "on the whole, failing to meet expectations does much more harm than exceeding expectations does good." The study discovered that customers who complained to an organisation and were completely satisfied with the response experienced emotions such as feeling reassured, relieved, grateful and impressed. Their satisfaction and loyalty was restored to the levels of customers who had not experienced a problem but those who had a less than satisfactory experience of making a complaint experienced emotions such as feeling exasperated, insulted, disgusted, cheated and angry. The study concluded that organisations would be unlikely to be able to restore a relationship with these customers.
What emotions do your customers display when problems are experienced? Are you insulting them? Or, are you reassuring and impressing your customers?
Don't forget we still don't like to complain.. formally!
Many customers still cannot be bothered to complain and most are reluctant to use a formal or official process. I rarely complain about problems about trains any more - I can't complain on the spot and the process is just too laborious when the expectation is that the complaint will make no or little difference to the service received. A survey of people who had used National Health Service (NHS) and social care services in the past three years found that around 14 per cent were in some way dissatisfied with their experience. Of these, only five per cent of people who were dissatisfied about the NHS went on to make a formal complaint (compared to one third who made a formal complaint about adult social care services). The main reason people did not complain formally was that they did not feel anything would be done as a result.
The complaint handling process should not only be quick and simple to use but also effective...
Get it right first time
Of course, some companies do not sufficiently empower front-line employees to resolve complaints - they may only be able to offer a limited apology and re-issue a product or provide a replacement service or rearranged appointment. If our employees have limited authority to resolve complaints, we may be exposed to increases in repeat contacts (customers call again to attempt to re-state the complaint), written complaints (customers try another channel to attempt to voice the complaint) and/or customer churn and apathy.
Employees also want simple and effective complaint handling processes - complexity simply creates a negative experience for both customer and employee. But employees also want to be given the authority to sort out customer problems - solving problems is rewarding and, hey, its also fun!
Reduce escalation rates
Complaints escalated to managers in a company, solicitors, consumer bodies or even to a sector Ombudsman are time consuming, costly and often less than constructive. A customer's escalation of a complaint is often caused by a less than ‘open’ reaction lower down the company and earlier in the process.
Many customers who are dissatisfied with the handling of an initial complaint choose to give up rather than take the complaint further. But how many of these will also switch provider or reduce their spend with the company? How many had expectations that could have been met by the company concerned?
A positive culture
A positive organisational culture empowers employees to resolve customer problems rather than experience daily stress in dealing with customer anger and frustration. Employees experiencing regular stress will be more likely to become absent from work, experience poor health and leave the organisation - negatively impacting on the company's financial performance. Companies need to recognise the importance of - and provide adequate resources to - employees that are trained, given processes that are easy to use and empowered to take actions to promptly resolve complaints.
Some companies have taken this a step further by empowering front-line employees to report, for example, problematic processes even where the customer did not express any dissatisfaction (but caused frustration maybe to the employee because the process required to deal with the customer could be improved upon).
Invite customers to complain...
Company executives can be nervous about enhancing the visibility of a complaint process. The common view is that promoting and publicising a complaint process only serves to generate more problems to be dealt with rather than recognising that complaints are naturally limited to the volume of problems experienced and reported by customers. However, if a customer experiences difficulties in finding out how to complain - frustration increases and the potential to put things right first time decreases.
What better way to demonstrate that customers can trust our business than by sorting out problems? We should be able to use complaint handling to show that we are honest, we tell the truth, we are open about what we do, we are responsive and able to honour our promises. Our complaint management strategy should reflect the values of our company and the brands that we promote.
Learn from what that customer just told you!
The complaint that is handled promptly on the front-line by giving an apology and a simple remedy does not often generate learning unless the handler is given sufficient time, after giving a response to the customer, to assess and understand the root cause of the problem and to share potential learning with colleagues. However, if a complaint is complex or unable to be resolved promptly on the front-line and an investigation needs to be carried out, the potential for identifying learning based on consideration of the issues raised in the the complaint will increase.
...and what is the cause of that recurring problem?
The potential for learning often improves as the amount of data available increases. Analysis of low-volume, unresolved and escalated issues may provide limited value to organisational learning but analysis of high-volume issues handled at the front-line - where less time is available to assess and evaluate the root causes and initiate corrective actions - should bring greater benefit in helping us to understand the common causes of customer problems and complaints. Senior management also need to be made aware of recurring issues - a great chance for them to visibly get involved and deliver improvements in response to customer feedback.
Good complaint management alone isn't going to make a failing business great but it should allow any business to fix broken relationships and do things better and smarter. The retention of customers increases revenue and profitability - delivering customers who may be happy to buy more and pay more, providing long term and sustainable revenue streams.