First, let's acknowledge what a complaint really is: the biggest bargain in market research we'll ever get.
Praise encourages us to keep doing what we're doing. Complaints challenge us. They tell us about our market and our systems, and offer us the encouragement to change.
Even better: if we can resolve a complaint effectively, we have an opportunity to create an advocate.
Many customers who take the trouble to let you know, instead of just telling everyone else, can be turned into an advocate. That's not just wishful thinking. TARP (Technical Assistance Research Programs) has found that if we resolve problems effectively our customers are likely to tell five other people.
So how do we resolve complaints effectively?
Acknowledge the feelings and whenever possible, resolve the complaint in a way that exceeds the customer's expectations. The principles apply whether you are talking to an unhappy customer, replying to her email, or replying to a complaint through the media.
Most dissatisfied customers, even angry ones, just want you to know that you've upset them. They want to know that you've heard their feelings, that you are sorry and that you are going to put things right. So two of their three needs are about feelings, not facts or promises.
Seem a bit soft?
If focusing on feelings seems too soft for you, imagine this...
You order a new dinner set and it arrives two days after your planned dinner party and several of the plates are broken. You ring the manager. How satisfied would you be if all you heard was that staff were under stress and that the freight company let them down and they would send you some replacement plates?
What if the manager were to say this? 'It's clearly been very frustrating for you and I'm sorry that we let you down on that occasion. We'll replace those broken plates by Tuesday and I'll be talking to our staff and the freight company to make sure that we improve our service in future'. Of course, the plates should be delivered with a card and a voucher.
You'll have your own words to convey the same ideas. It's the process that's important.
- Acknowledge the feelings with feeling words such as frustrating, disappointing, upsetting, annoying or irritating. Acknowledging feelings is not the same as admitting blame. It's a way of saying 'I've heard you'. It's essential whenever the feelings are clear, but don't overdo it ('I can see that this has been a tragedy' etc.).
- Apologise. A full and specific (though not demeaning) apology.
- Tell them how you will resolve the complaint. Be generous.
Is the customer always right?
Surely not, but being right isn't very important. It's the relationship. There have to be limits of course, but it's amazing how far some firms will go to avoid paying out or resolving some minor dispute. You see them in television programs earnestly arguing the logic of their case while the audience becomes increasingly convinced that they are mean-spirited and have no understanding of how the customer feels. They are destroying relationships on a massive scale.
If it's minor, settle it well before it goes public, even if you don't think it's justified.
What if the customer is wrong and you can't be generous?
Acknowledge the customer's feelings, explain your point of view in a reasonable but firm way and say that you won't be taking any further action.
If the nightmare happens and television calls, do the same.
'We realise that the Lawrences have been very disappointed with the way their house is sited, but our contract makes it clear that it is their responsibility to ensure that it is sited the way they want it. They signed the plans to show their approval. We do appreciate that they are very upset, it was their decision and we won't be resiting the house.' You'll still lose the client, but not the audience.
Acknowledging the feelings is the key
Customers (and audiences too) need to hear you do it. It's the way our brains are wired. We know instinctively when it's done well. Doing it well takes focus. Try working your way though the list: acknowledge feelings, apologise, resolve.