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Serving up customer satisfaction

These 10 tips for handling complaints can transform unhappy customers into customers for life.

January 16, 2013
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We have a policy, and we’re sticking to it. That seems to be how some companies choose to handle customer complaints. Unfortunately, that approach might not be what’s best for business. When any company receives a complaint, it essentially has two choices: One, treat the complaining customer like he or she is a pain in the neck or two, appreciate each complaining customer and use the complaint as an opportunity to improve.

One complaining customer actually represents many other customers who had the same problem but didn’t complain. And because that’s true, you should try to uplift them every time.

For every person who actually comes to complain to you, there is a quantum number who won’t come to you. They’re the ones who go off and tell somebody else, complain about you online and take their business elsewhere. Let’s say one out of 100 of your customers actually comes to you with a complaint. Shouldn’t you really value that person times 100? Because they’re representing all the other people who never came to you, you should be happy — or if not happy, at least very, very appreciative — when someone actually takes the time to give you a second chance. 

Read on for my advice on how to use customer complaints to upliftyour service.

Thank them for their complaint. Give positive recognition by saying, right off the bat, “Thank you for reaching out.”

Show appreciation for the complaining customer’s time, effort, communication, feedback and suggestions. Always keep in mind that the customer didn’t have to come to you at all. He could have simply taken his business to your competitor. When a customer gives you the opportunity to recover their service, be grateful.

Don’t be defensive. It’s easy to get defensive when an angry customer is on the other end of the line. Customers with complaints exaggerate situations, they get confused, and yes, they may even lie about how things went down. It’s tempting to just blow off the customer. You want to say, “No! That’s not what happened. You’re wrong!” But getting defensive will lead only to more problems.

When you get defensive, you raise the temperature even higher. Think about the last time you had a disagreement with your spouse. How did it make you feel when he or she told you that you were wrong about something or completely denied that a set of events happened the way you said they happened? When a customer complains, they’re doing so because they feel wronged in some way. You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying, but you do have to agree to hear them out. That’s how you keep the conversation moving in a positive direction.

Acknowledge what’s important to them. Service providers must find a complaining customer’s value dimension, or what’s important to them. Even if you think the customer’s complaint is unfair, there is something they value that your company didn’t deliver on. Embrace that value.

What the customer wants is to feelright. When you agree with their value dimension, you’re telling them that they are right to value a specific topic. For example, if a customer says your service was slow, then that customer values speed. You might say, “Absolutely, you deserve quick, efficient service.” Or if a customer says your staff was rude, you might say, “We do agree that you should be treated with courtesy and respect every time you come to our store.”

When you validate what a customer values, you aren’t agreeing with them that your service is slow or that your staff is rude. You’re saying, “We agree with you on what you find important and what you value. And we want to deliver in those areas.”

Use judo, not boxing. In boxing, you go right after your opponent, trying to punch him to the ground. In judo, you work with someone else’s motions to create a desired result. You use another person’s speed and energy to spin him around and then end up together on the same side.

When you show a customer you understand what they value, you’re catching them off guard with your own movement. They don’t expect you to tell them that they’re right. Suddenly, just as you might do in judo, you’ve avoided a defensive confrontation and you can spin them. In judo, you’d spin them to the ground. In customer service, you use the opportunity to show the customer that you’re now both on the same side and you can work together.

Apologize once, upfront. Every service provider knows that the customer is not always right. But the customer is always the customer. You don’t have to tell the customer you were wrong, but you should apologize for the inconvenience they’ve experienced. When you do so, you’re showing understanding and empathy for their discomfort, displeasure or inconvenience.

Explain the company’s desire to improve. When you understand what the customer values, show them things your company does that help you perform well in that area. Let them know about business improvements and planned improvements, and show them you are sincere about your commitment to do well in the areas that they value. At the very least, you can say, “I’m going to make sure everyone in the company hears your story. We don’t want this to happen again.” When you express the company’s desire to improve, you start on the path to rebuilding its credibility with the customer.

Educate your customer. Part of hearing the customer out is answering any questions they ask about their specific situation. Provide additional, useful information. If they ask a question that you can’t answer or don’t know the answer to, tell them you’ll find out the answer and get back to them. And then actually follow through. Contact the customer with the answers they requested. And even if they might not have requested an update about their situation, get back in touch with follow-up information regardless. These are additional opportunities for you to say through your actions, “We care about you. We value your business.”

Contain the problem. Let’s say a family is at a crowded theme park on a hot day. The youngest child in the group starts to have an all-out meltdown. Suddenly, a theme park staff member sweeps onto the scene and whisks the family into a special room. Inside, they find an air conditioned room with water and other beverages, an ice cream machine, a bathroom, a comfortable sitting area, etc. The only thing missing in the room is any connection to the theme park’s brand. That’s because this room is used to isolate customers from the brand until they’re all — parents and children — having a more pleasurable experience. The room is also being used to isolate the unhappy family from the families outside the room who are enjoying their day at the theme park. And finally, they’re being isolated from some park staff who may not be as well-prepared as the staff member who brought the family to the room to handle these sticky situations.

That’s how you contain a problem, by having a service provider educated in uplifting service that responds to a customer’s complaint. An employee may say, “No matter what our rules or policies are, we see that your circumstance requires flexibility. We want to handle your special situation carefully. Let’s work together to figure out what’s best. But first, let me thank you for reaching out.” If a company employee reacts this way, it is obvious they will work together with a customer to solve a complaint or problem.

Recover. Show the customer you care about them, even if you feel the company did everything right, by making them an offer. Companies worry that they’ll get taken advantage of if they give vouchers, discounts or freebies as part of their service recovery, but the reality is that almost never happens.

Offer the customer something and then explain that you’re doing so “as a gesture of goodwill” or “as a token of our appreciation.” Sears takes recovery seriously. The company now has a “blue ribbon team” of specially educated and empowered staff to handle recoveries. Once an issue goes to them, anything they recommend is what gets done. They have full support from the top down. Sears does this because the company understands that a successfully recovered customer can become your most loyal advocate and ally.

Give serial complainers an out. Some people just love to complain. These kinds of customers complain, not so that they can become satisfied, but because they are never satisfied. With serial complainers, you must limit your liability and isolate them from your brand.

One example is a leading luxury airline had a serial complainer who loved caviar. He loved it so much that on every flight he’d eat all of the caviar the flight crew had to offer and then he’d complain that they didn’t have enough. As a test, the airline even stocked extra caviar on one of his flights. He ate it all again, and complained … again.

His constant complaints led the airline to send him a letter. Essentially it read, “Thank you for traveling with us for so many years. It appears that despite our best efforts we haven’t been able to satisfy you. Out of our concern for your happiness we’ve provided you here with the contact information for three other airlines that serve your route of travel. However, should you choose to travel with us again, and enjoy the high level of service we are able to provide, we will be delighted to welcome you on board with us again.” With the letter, they gave the complaint-prone passenger an out. On the rare occasions when you deal with someone who complains all the time, that’s the best thing to do.

Your customers are not your enemy. It’s sometimes hard to remember that when you’re involved in a tense complaint situation. But they’re essential to your business and you really are both on the same side. Your customer wants the product or service you provide, and you want to give it to them. When you treat complaints as opportunities to build loyalty, you can create customers for life and uplift your entire company in the process.

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