Complainers will no longer accept the 'you'll have to speak to the manager who isn't around at the moment' approach. They want an answer now - or next time they'll go elsewhere.
Go into a British shop and buy something, anything. And then take it back and complain about it - there's a good chance you'll be met with either indifference or well-meaning confusion. Now, hop on Concorde and do the same thing in New York. Even in today's so called global marketplace, you'll almost certainly be struck by the speed and efficacy of the US response. To be fair, it shouldn't really come as that much of a surprise that our businesses aren't exactly world-class when it comes to dealing with customers' complaints. After all, histori-cally, we British (with our stiff upper lips and empire-building stoicism) have not been a race of complainers: our companies, perforce, simply haven't had all that much practice at dealing with the dissatisfied customer.
Even so, the complainant culture has changed radi-cally over the last decade and, nowadays, any company that fails to deal with a dissatisfied customer adequately is likely to find itself losing him or her. And it gets worse. Not only will the organisation in question have lost a customer but, as Justin Pannell of consultants MSB (Managing Service Business), says, dissatisfied customers are much more likely to spread word of their dissatis-faction than happy ones would of their satisfaction. As this suggests, complaint handling - as an important and highly visible part of the company's service culture - can be an important source of competitive advantage.
Take for example, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Safeway and Asda - four supermarket chains selling similar products to similar people at similar prices. Customers choose their outlet on grounds other than what they sell. After location, perhaps the most obvious is service. How then does an organisation ensure that the (possibly irate) customer entering the store (or waiting in the airport or on the end of the phone) feels happy and satisfied?
Firstly, explains Pannell, when a customer walks into a shop or calls, they want the first person they speak to 'to own the problem'. Customers do not want to be passed all around the houses; neither do they want the 'it's not my fault - you'll have to speak to the manager who isn't around at the moment' approach. What they do want is an immediate response. Of course, the member of staff they complain to may not be in a position to deal with the complaint: 'People become very defensive - staff see it as personal whereas customers are just taking it out on what they see as a faceless organisation.'
To give customers what they want, says Pannell, requires a shift in managerial attitude Frontline staff need to be empowered to deal with complaints promptly and efficiently. This is often the hardest aspect of complaint management: 'Managers must learn to let go. When you roll out such a programme, you must get to the managers first. Traditionally managers command and control. Getting them to let go can be the hardest part of the whole damned thing. Managers always worry far too much about their frontline staff. If you have faith in your staff, they won't let you down.'
To this end, many organisations set up facilities to deal with customer queries and complaints wherever their customers are likely to be. Marks & Spencer, for instance, has a help desk in every store, staffed with employees empowered to deal with customer complaints. Comments Ken Birkby, M&S' customer service manager: 'Customers will have issues they want to raise - in the case of a complaint these will typically range from a refund to the customer choosing something of similar value.' Like Pannell, Birkby is keen to stress that, probably more than anything, complaining customers like to be dealt with speedily: 'For customers time is of the essence - they don't want to be passed from pillar to post. If the complaint is dealt with quickly and properly, they're obviously going to be far happier than if they get the same answer much later.'
Of course, even the most empowered members of the frontline staff will not be able to deal with every complaint, and to this end most large companies such as M&S and Kwik-Fit (see box) will have procedures whereby their customers can take matters a level higher. But in the first instance what the company needs to do is to look at its complaints procedure through its customer's eyes. Comments Paul Forster, chairman of Lifetime Business Group, a consultancy for customer management: 'Traditionally most companies look at it from their own perspective. The customer says, "I have a problem", and the company says, "Does this fit into our usual way of doing things?" If there is a problem, you need to be prepared to take on the customer's perspective - otherwise you just create hostility. Then you can start working round to how to respond to that.'
That part of the complaint procedure is reactive and companies also need to take more of a proactive stance: 'You need to create an understanding of your customers' expectations,' says Forster, 'and then you can ensure that your response is right.' And, he adds, if you treat the customer in a way that exceeds their expectations, you can actually generate extra loyalty. Research by US-based TARP suggests that, if you merely satisfy your customers, around 80% will come back for more. If however, you first give them cause for complaint and then deal with their complaint in a way that satisfies them, 90% will return.
Here Pannell cites the example of an airline to which a regular customer wrote, complaining that its in-flight golf maga-zine catered only for Americans. Could it, he asked, provide some mags for their British customers? The airline wrote back saying that, unfortunately it couldn't but as the man was a regular flyer it would give him a year's subscription to the British magazine he'd mentioned. Pannell was impressed: 'The subscription cost them maybe $30, and every time the magazine lands on his doormat - bang - he'll think about what a great airline it is.'
But say you have 'let go' or, at least given your staff enough rope to act with authority when dealing with complaining customers - doesn't the whole business become enormously expensive? Apparently not: 'Managers', says Pannell, 'spend all their time designing procedures for those who will abuse any recovery system - not the 99% who are honest and decent.' Birkby, similarly, says that M&S deals with all complaints on the assumption that they're genuine. And, while nobody likes being ripped off, you can afford the odd bad apple.
While training staff adequately and then 'letting them get on with it' is probably the single most important initiative a business can take, there does need to be back-up in place. M&S, for instance, enters details of all complaints on a database to allow relevant staff to see if problems are recurring, and periodically, a random sample of complainers are revisited to check residual satisfaction levels. Businesses as diverse as Kwik-Fit, Lexus and Disney likewise log details and get back to customers to ensure that matters have been dealt with to their satisfaction. Kenny King, Kwik-Fit's customer service manager, says the service culture in this country has changed and people expect a lot more.
Effective complaint management owes a great deal to good old common sense.
But there is much merit in advanced planning. Designing the systems to follow up complaints may seem complex but when an unhappy customer shows up, everything is fairly visceral. All an organisation needs to do is ensure that employees have the backing to do what needs to be done. And then let them deal with it as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
As we all know, retaining old customers is a lot easier than attracting new ones. Besides which, as Pannell says, 'We all know how we feel when it's done right.'
Kwik-Fit - Satisfaction guaranteed, quickly
'What differentiates us from the competition,' explains Kenny King, Kwik-Fit's customer services manager, 'is that we actually entice people to call us or write to us.' Indeed they do: Sir Tom Farmer's likeness is to be found all over Kwik Fit's corporate literature exhorting customers to do exactly that.
Typically a customer with a complaint dials Kwik-Fit's freephone number and an operator takes down details of the problem. This information is then relayed to an area manager - someone who oversees three or four service centres - who will then call the customer to discuss the problem and what needs to be done. If necessary, the area manager will also visit the customer in person. The area manager can then take the appropriate action and prepares a report which goes back to the customer service centre.
If the complaint is more serious - involving, say, the conduct of an employee - it will be dealt with at a higher level. Kwik-Fit aims to have all complaints resolved within three days of contact.
Not only does Kwik-Fit ask people to call with comments, sometimes it actively solicits them. The customer survey unit usually calls 5,000 people every evening. Should any of them come up with something along the lines of 'Well ... I wasn't going to complain but to be honest I was a bit unhappy', the Kwik-Fit employee will apologise and ask if they wish to follow it up in any way. 'Our aim', says King, 'is 100% customer delight. Of course in the real world it won't happen but the quicker you respond to someone's problem, the happier they'll be.' And, King is quick to point out that, while happy customers are desirable, it all comes down to sound financial sense - a satisfied complainant may well become a brand ambassador. 'If a customer is in the position where he or she thinks, "Well, I wasn't satisfied earlier, but I am now", they're more likely to blow Kwik-Fit's trumpet.' The efficiently rectified vehicular problem, he says, is exactly the kind of thing that pops up in conversation down the pub.