Lessons from the leaders: How complaints can improve brand experience

26th Aug 2015

Is this a familiar situation?

You have finished buying a product or possibly a service, and the sales person hands you a questionnaire and asks you to fill it in. They then stand over you while you complete it and proceed to tell you why you should give them a ‘10 out of 10’: to help them get their bonus, feed their kids or save them from a life on the streets (holiday reps on transfer coaches are very guilty of this).

It happens all the time, and this particular instance really annoyed me. I was telephoned by a car salesman (Vauxhall, by the way) after I had given him a seven and not a 10 out of 10, for the service he gave in the process of buying a very nice little Corsa (fab car by the way). He explained that he wanted to get his score ‘up to a 10’ so that he achieved his target for that month. When I didn’t alter my score he called me a second time and then, rather angrily, he called a third time - then I acted.

He got a five.

Don’t avoid complaints – embrace them

I bet we all have similar examples of such incidents. And the growing trend of linking customer satisfaction scores to reward and recognition, can often lead to a blatant rigging of the system. Which can of course, be dangerous in that it provides a false, overly glowing reading of satisfaction levels while also robbing the business of one of its most fantastic gifts - complaints.    

The whole process around how a business handles complaints is crucial to its success. There are many statistics that prove this and it is hard to choose just one to illustrate the point. However, this one shone through;

Of the total number of customers that have an issue with a business, only 4% will complain to the company itself, while the other 96% will choose to tell nine or 10 peers about their experience.

Makes you think doesn’t it.

On the other side of the coin, when a business responds to put a situation right, customers go on to tell six or seven others of the positive experience they had with the brand and continue their relationship in the future.

A gift indeed.

Are you maximising the power of complaints?

Though there are some basic and obvious principles that every business should follow when addressing customer complaints, here are our top 10 tips:

  1. Actively listen and empathise - make sure you really understand the issue and are able to deliver a personal response.
  2. Respond quickly - no matter how the complaint reaches you, the quicker you act, the better.
  3. Take ownership - the person who takes the complaint owns the issue and manages it. Even if they do not have the answer themselves, they should take responsibility until the situation is resolved.
  4. Take a direct approach – particularly when speaking to customers via channels such as social media.
  5. Use positive, active language – this will help build a trusting relationship between your business and the customer.
  6. Don’t air your dirty laundry in public – avoid making any negative comments about the company’s internal workings with those outside of the business.
  7. Don’t make promises you can’t keep – make sure to give time scales you know you can deliver against.
  8. Reassure your customer – demonstrate that you recognise the root cause of the problem and your business is working towards resolving it.
  9. Keep records - log what has been agreed between your business and the customer, ideally in a system everyone in the company can see.
  10. Maintain a style that leans towards formality – remember that even if your brand voice isn’t always formal, that you handle complaints with sensitivity and understanding. This means that a humorous approach may not always be the most appropriate, while in others it will be.

By taking on our top 10 tips, you will be going a long way to turning your complaint into a gift.  But, if you want to turn it into the gift that keeps on giving then you need to apply the ‘A’ word; Alignment.

‘The future is all about the ‘A’ word’; CEO of United Biscuits, 2015                       

Which brands use complaints to their advantage?

The companies that really utilise complaints are those that hardwire their brand, in terms of positioning, values and personality, into the way that they respond; we call this ‘alignment’.

The brand values effectively provide a filter to help them decide what they do and don’t do, while their personality helps guide the way that they respond in terms of tone of voice and the language they use. Those that do this well immediately differentiate themselves and enhance their reputation simultaneously, as great responses are often widely shared.


Starbucks respond to customer queries via the Twitter handle @MyStarbucksIdea. Through this they have developed a ‘matey’ personality and language which they use when answering enquiries and complaints. Just the name of the handle itself aligns with their brand quest of becoming the ‘third place in people’s lives’. 












Warby Parker

A newer kid on the block is Warby Parker, creators of designer eyewear. One of the company’s values is to ‘treat customers in a way that they would like to be treated’. They decided that they would prefer it if people answered problems face-to-face, and the closest they could get to this was to respond using video.

They also found that tweets including a video were, on average, retweeted 65 times more than those without. David Gilboa, co-founder of Warby Parker said: “Customers were so blown away that we are going to these lengths to meet their needs that they tweet about it and tell dozens of other people.”








Virgin, of course, do it well. Here is one example of an amusing Twitter exchange that came to be dubbed ‘poogate’.

When a Virgin customer was caught short on one of the company’s trains, he decided to tweet for help. 















Virgin’s response was timely, humorous and most importantly - helpful. It followed their customer ethos of ‘it isn’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it’, and drew on their distinct personality which is woven into everything they do.

And finally…

Gifts come in many guises. Complaints are a gift that businesses strive to avoid but they can be one of the greatest gifts they ever receive. If they handle them well they can turn detractors into advocates but if they also align their brand through the way they are handled, they can turn them into powerful brand builders.  

Gary Moss is the chairman and one of the original founders of Brand Vista


Replies (1)

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By PaulineAshenden
27th Aug 2015 09:28

As you say Gary if someone has taken the time to complain, it is imperative that you listen to them. This is particularly true as mistakes happen in even the best run companies – what customers remember is how you deal with them. There’s more on the positive power of complaints in this recent Eptica blog http://www.eptica.com/blog/dealing-rising-number-customer-complaints

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