How can a customer complaint affect your business? In today’s environment of business transparency, where customer issues arise in the real world as well as in the virtual world, handling customer complaints and issues the right way is more essential than ever before.

Is the customer always right? Can you completely protect your business from erroneous claims? We asked these essential questions and more to several industry experts with years of experience in professional carwashing; because, after all, when it comes to handling customer complaints, unfortunately, practice makes perfect.

Why customers complain

In an article posted on customerservicezone.com titled, “Why Do Your Customers Complain and What Can You Do About It,” author Robert Warlow outlines the top reasons for customer complaints common across many industries, including carwashing and detailing.

The top 11 reasons for customer complaints, writes Warlow, include: missed service expectations; missed product expectations; business is not open when needed; inattentiveness when calling; when phone is answered, the customer gets transferred or cut off; bad attitude; not willing to seek appropriate solutions; not giving full product/service explanations; not willing to admit a mistake; not providing updates in complaint-handling process; and broken promises.

The carwash professionals we spoke with for this article note solving some of these issues comes down to clear communication with staff and customers. And, although managers — including customer service managers — and owners are ultimately responsible for listening to customer complaints and providing solutions, front-line workers must also be trained on dealing with these situations since they will likely have the most customer contact throughout the course of the day.

A good listener is a good problem-solver

“Businesses need to focus on listening to the customer, and then on offering a solution,” says Robert Andre, vice president of training and education for SONNY’S The CarWash Factory. “It’s equally important, if not more important, to train the [front-line] staff on how to handle and answer customer questions.”

However, the bigger the issue is in the customer’s mind — and that’s key, evaluate the issue from the customer’s perspective and not from your business’ standpoint — the more he or she will want to speak with a manager or the owner. When a customer starts to get emotional, it becomes vital for your employees, or yourself, to remain calm.

“Just because the customer is getting loud, doesn’t mean you need to get loud. Stay calm, using a low tone, and show empathy,” asserts Rodney Bronson, customer service manager for Hoffman Car Wash. “Look, if it were your car, you’d be mad too.”

According to Bronson, listening is the most important part, and not interrupting is included in that best practice. Although effective managers need to provide an ideal solution to resolve any issues in a timely manner, if they are not listening, they might miss a key piece of information that could help achieve the desired end result: reaching an agreement.

“When push comes to shove, listening is really the most important thing you can do in these situations,” reiterates Bronson. “Then, obviously everyone has different personalities. So first you have to figure out what [issue] you are dealing with, who you are dealing with and, most importantly, you need to introduce yourself so the customer knows exactly who [he or she is] talking to. There are operators in this industry that have impeccable customer service, and it’s due to proper training.”

Andre recommends the L.A.S.T. problem-solving technique, “Listen, apologize, solve and then thank the customer for his or her business,” as an effective way to deescalate any customer complaints.

As referenced earlier, while classroom training is an important step in elevating your employees’ skillset when dealing with customer issues, nothing beats real-world experience since every customer, issue and situation are different. In fact, in some cases, you can turn a negative customer complaint into a positive when a new employee can see firsthand how you were able to mitigate an issue.

“You can talk and teach all day, but when working with the public, you have to see how your employees handle certain situations, such as how they communicate with customers, to see if they require more training. We always teach our employees to be polite, never get into an argument over a wash and, if the issue escalates when a manager is not available, ask [the customer(s)] to fill out a form, and we will be back in touch,” asserts AJ Zappitelli, owner of Zappy’s Auto Washes.

Many times, customers just want to vent about an expectation that was missed, and their initial reaction might be more intense than after allowing some time to pass. Still, adds Andre, you want to give customers the opportunity to vent that frustration, even when your wash is not at fault. Furthermore, all owners need to take accountability and make themselves open to the customer.

“My way of staying ahead of major customer problems: We have about six places around the wash where my (the owner) cellphone number is posted, including on damage claim forms, and also on our Facebook page. This allows [customers] to have direct access to me, should they need it,” says Andre, adding that this also has an indirect benefit for employees at the wash to ensure their own accountability, and it gives them another way to solve any on-site issues by letting customers know the owner is always on call.

Resolving issues online

While discussing, and resolving, issues in person is ideal, there are cases when customer issues can arise online. Today’s owners, operators and managers must realize the impact of the Internet and the popularity of customer reviews found online.

“The Internet used to be a one-way form of communication, allowing the business to communicate with customers. Obviously with social media, it now gives customers a public forum to write anything they want to write about a business,” explains Andre, adding that they can also post photos and expose a carwash even further.

At Hoffman’s Car Wash, the business utilizes a two-pronged approach to monitor these reviews, decreasing the time and resources needed to realize and address these issues. Using the free service of Google Alerts allows Hoffman’s Car Wash to receive notifications via email when its business is mentioned online. This carwash chain also invests in a service that emails an alert when someone posts a comment about the carwash on social media, for instance.

And, if those comments are negative, which Bronson notes is a rare occasion, “We will respond to them and ask them to please contact us so that we can address their issue. We say, ‘We would like the opportunity to fix this,’” he says. “That also shows other people that we’re monitoring their feedback and we care enough to fix the problem.”

Even with the availability of smartphones, customers most likely will not turn to the Internet and social media with grievances while they are at your location. This gives your business an opportunity to resolve concerns before they go public online.

“The main thing is dealing with the issues at an early stage of the game before they escalate to social media,” continues Andre. “I find a lot of customers will turn to social media and use it as a sounding board if they feel that they are not getting anywhere with the owner.”

Zappitelli agrees with this strategy, adding, “We try to stop any complaints at our locations. We usually have someone at the location [who focuses] on customer service. We always look at customer service as a huge [aspect of our business]. We never want the customer to leave mad. When there is no one on-site to resolve an issue we have phone numbers posted, and we try to call customers back within the same day. The quicker you can resolve an issue, the better.”

By sure to check out the May issue of Professional Carwashing & Detailing to read part two of this article, which will discuss common customer complaints by wash type, monitoring with surveillance and if the customer is really always right.