Good News, We Have A Customer Complaint!

We’ve all had it hammered into us… improve services, eliminate complaints, make the customer happy. We all want to provide a service that makes our clients happy, and never receives a client complaint. If customer satisfaction has been your big goal of the year, when the next complaint comes (and they always come) it’s like a punch to the gut. You (or your staff) may be thinking, “Don’t they realize how hard we’re working to make things better? Why are they complaining like this… the mistake is completely understandable given the circumstances, and this complaint just makes all of us look bad!” OK. Fair enough. But now I’m about to completely turn your life around. Ready?  Here it comes. Ahem. COMPLAINTS ARE GOOD! Got it? Uhhhh… why don’t I hear dancing in the streets? OK, let’s break this down a bit.

Almost every customer has a certain adversarial relationship with every service they receive. This is especially so when the services are not competitive, and therefore do not offer exciting new options to buy their product. For example, you are probably more excited by something that you want and is always new and fresh (new Plasma Screen, cell phone, dinner at a great restaurant, a vacation at a top resort, etc.) in contrast to a non-competitive service that you are required to use (renew your license at the department of motor vehicles, request a city permit to add a room to your house, etc.). If you run a service in a big firm you are more likely to be categorized as the DMV than dinner at le Bernardin. But even at the best restaurants in the world, things go wrong. Your reservation is misplaced, a friend joins you and the extra seat requires a very long wait, they are out of the special… all kinds of things go wrong all of the time. But a great restaurant is incredibly good at managing complaints.  

Last week I was eating at a very good Italian restaurant, Alfredo’s near Rockefeller center. Their specialty (surprise!) is Fettuccini Alfredo, and their Fettuccini Alfredo is truly excellent. One of our party ordered the Fettuccini, and was the first one to finish the meal. Across from him, Claudia (who happened to be a very experienced restaurant manager), asked him if he was still hungry.  He said. “A Little.. but it was very good, so I’m happy”. Claudia shook her head and said, “The restaurant wants you to be happy. Happy customers are loyal customers. They don’t just want you to come here once. They want loyal customers. Think how much money they are going to lose over the next 10 years if you never come back here again; you shouldn’t do that to them!”  She then called over the waiter and said, “My friend didn’t have enough to eat, he thought the plate would be a bit larger. I just thought you should know.” The waiter nodded his head and said he would check with the cook. Instead he went to the manager, who said something to him and then the waiter disappeared. The waiter was back a few minutes later with desert menus and said, “We have some excellent deserts today (hands out dessert menus), but while you think about your orders the chef wanted to be sure that everyone was satisfied with your main course.” And then another waiter showed up to give each of us an appetizer plate of Fettuccini Alfredo. Claudia looked, nodded and said, “The manager did the right thing.” I’ve been to Alfredo’s before, and I sort of like the place. Now, I will absolutely go out of my way to go there again.  

That’s the magic of complaints. It wasn’t even my complaint, and I feel all warm and fuzzy about Alfredo’s. We are used to having an adversarial relationship with services. Even when you get that new cell phone that you want, aren’t you annoyed when they get to, “That’s a phone with a spare battery. OK. Are you interested in the $39.99 option for our extended warranty service, so that when your phone breaks we will acknowledge that A) you are fact a human being and B) you are standing in front of me with a broken phone in your hand?” That’s when you stop thinking about your beloved new purchase and consider the technical burden you were suckered into buying.  What can I tell you, customer loyalty is fleeting. But when you do have a problem, and you reluctantly trudge into the phone shop and someone smiles at you, shows you it’s just a little problem and hands you back a functioning phone…  you think, “Hey, I made a pretty good purchase after all. I’m smarter than I thought!” We get past the anxiety of what could go wrong and we’re happier about our purchase and a more loyal customer than we were originally. How can you leverage the power of customer complaints?

  1. Track complaints: Every organization has complaints. If all complaints suddenly stop… BEAWARE! This is rarely a sign that everything is running well. It is more likely a sign that your client are afraid to talk to you, or that registering a complain never leads to a satisfactory resolution. Instead of talking to you, they are talking to other clients. What are they saying? Basically, that your service stinks. According to one study, every complaint leads to a conversation with 14 peers about what is wrong with a service. There are lots of numbers and lots of studies, but they are unanimous in this: unreported problems lead to whispers and rumors about service problems that become very difficult to resolve. Don’t just wait for complaints. IF you are tracking metrics, go to clients who received poor service and did not complain. If you went to a restaurant and weren’t seated on time, there were errors in your order, and the quality of the food was bad… wouldn’t you complain? If you didn’t, was it because you just didn’t care anymore if the restaurant improved? Think about this in terms of your own services.
  2. Focus on complaint resolution: Once you can identify complain opportunities, you need a comprehensive process to turn around customers… convert them from complainers to evangelists. Are you sure you’re capturing all complaints? How would you track and treat an active complainer (filed a complaint) in contrast to a passive complaint (the metrics say they had a problem, but you haven’t heard from that client). Are you just tracking that the problem existed, or that it was resolved. How much effort is there to problem resolution (do you have a formal tracking sheet for each incidence, names of people involved, methods of resolution, post resolution issues… such as is the client happy?).  
  3. Provide solutions: If the managers of your services are like the managers in a restaurant, how much latitude do they have for resolving a problem? Services are very diverse, and the types of resolutions will vary greatly. Furthermore, if you speak with your clients you may find that they have VERY different ideas about how a complaint should be resolved. In a restaurant, if you hate your meal, the manager may take it off of your bill. But for corporate services, the individual receiving the service may not be the person who is billed (some services don’t ever bill). Find out what your clients want. Can you provide some or all of these options? Are managers or supervisors empowered to apply these options? When a salesperson has no expenses, they are going to be questioned by their manager, asking why they aren’t taking clients out to dinner, or golfing or SOMETHING! If your staff is not using resources to address client complaints, they are hurting your organization. Remember: Complaints that are handled well are one of your best opportunities to improve customer satisfaction, make the maximum use of this opportunity.          
  4. Build Stories: It’s one thing to tell everyone that you now want to see more complaints, it’s another to get everyone to change their behavior. One of the best tools for changing behavior is to tell stories that support the change you want. Tell stories of great success you have had, tell stories of great stories form other firms, even competitors. If all else fails, make up some stories (you can even tell everyone that you made this up), and tell everyone that this is an example of the stories that you want to hear about your group. Also, read the literature on problem resolution. One report to read is, “From Disgust to Delight: Do Customers Hold a Grudge?” by Tor Andreassen ( . It’s pretty academic, but it tells you that rather than holding a grudge, exposing and resolving complaints builds client satisfaction and support.

There you have it. Complaints are good… if you resolve them. Make sure you have a credible number of complaints, track active and passive complaints, give your managers latitude for dealing with complaints, resolve complaints and ensure that your entire organization understands that you are serious about exposing and resolving complaints. And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

This entry was posted in Best Practices, Decision Making, Delivering Services, Improvement, Continuous or Not, Unique Ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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