Brain Food: Crash course in ... Handling customer complaints

You've had a letter from a customer complaining that their previous complaints weren't taken seriously. It's made you wonder if there are other unhappy customers out there. So how might you be doing better?

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Define a complaint. ISO 10002 calls it: 'An expression of dissatisfaction made to an organisation ... where a response or resolution is explicitly or implicitly expected.' It's a complaint whether it's delivered in writing, by phone, e-mail or any other channel.

Encourage complaints rather than suppress them. As the old adage goes: 'If we're doing something right, tell your friends; if we're doing something wrong, tell us.'

Record it. The reasons for logging complaints are several: you can analyse the cause to identify trends that indicate bigger problems; monitoring the number of complaints gives a measure of your customer service; and a tracking system should ensure that every complaint is resolved or responded to.

Are you listening? Train your people to listen properly. 'Most of the time, customers don't want compensation, they want someone to listen,' says John Hughes, MD of the Customer Service Network. You should instil a culture of listening without prejudice - not deciding complaints are unjustified before they've been properly considered.

Empower your people. Front-line staff should be encouraged to take ownership of the less serious complaints, and empowered to resolve them with refunds, replacements, compensation up to defined limits, or similar measures.

'They need to find out what the customer wants, and then explain what they are able to do,' says Hughes. If a complaint can't be resolved at this level, there should be a well-defined escalation process.

Set expectations. Tell your customer who will be dealing with the complaint and the timescale involved. 'It frustrates people when they feel they are disappearing into some vast corporate machinery,' says Jo Causon, marketing director of the Chartered Management Institute. 'Tell them if it will take 24 hours or a week, and stick to it.'

Learn from it. By analysing why people have complained, you can learn how to improve your products, services or processes. 'You can also learn how to transact and communicate with people better,' says Causon. A follow-up survey - maybe by a third party - can ask how well the complaint process was handled. When handled well, it has been shown that dissatisfied customers can be converted into especially loyal ones.

Don't forget other stakeholders. Your whole organisation should be open to complaints. 'The finance department often receives complaints, for example,' says John Hele, global product manager at the BSI. 'They should be dealt with in exactly the same way as customer complaints.'

Do say: 'Through root-cause analysis of complaints we will gain a better understanding of drivers of dissatisfaction that will enable us to improve our overall service.'

Don't say: Complaints are filed in the round wicker basket under my desk.'

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