The handling of consumer complaints is a critical aspect of customer service. Larger retail or services companies have teams dedicated to verifying and rectifying complaints, from the mundane to the bizarre, such as the unfortunate woman who recently discovered a common toad in her supposedly 'washed and prepared' supermarket salad.
Many retailers operate with the safety net of a two-tier system. Complaints can either be dealt with on the spot at the point-of-purchase or taken to the higher authority of a centralised department.
One customer of Marks & Spencer bought a bra only to find that it chafed her back. She phoned the central London store where she bought it and explained that you couldn't actually see the badly sewn seam that was causing the irritation. 'That's OK,' she was told, 'we'll get one of the assistants to try it on and verify your story.' Unhappy with this course of action, she contacted the company's HQ. The company quickly refunded the cost of her purchase, adding a discretionary amount for her inconvenience.
'A good service accepts that things are wrong and fixes it,' says Ken Birkby, head of customer services for Marks & Spencer. 'Ones that aren't so good admit it but do nothing or, worst of all, deny it altogether.
We sell over a billion and a half items of merchandise a year. They're not all going to be perfect.' M&S's Baker Street customer service facility is open seven days a week, and manned on a shift basis by some 115 staff.
They deal with queries ranging from dietary requirements to corporate policy and faulty goods. 'We have one basic rule,' says Birkby. 'That 99% of customers are genuine. If possible, however, we prefer issues to be resolved at the store.'
Pizza Hut UK instituted a complaints training programme for restaurant managers and teams around three years ago. 'We believe our staff should be thoroughly educated (in dealing with complaints),' says Brian Rimmer, operations director of restaurants. 'They should be confident enough to go in and sort the problem out before it escalates.' This active approach has reduced the level of complaints in Pizza Hut outlets: from one complaint per 5,000 guest cheques (each of which comprises 2.5 customers) to one per 16,000. The field policy is backed up by a 9am-7pm helpline and a database of all customer complaints.
Not everyone has been as thorough as Pizza Hut, however. A recent National Consumer Council (NCC) survey discovered that, over the past five years, complaints about shops had risen from 26% to 46%. Unhelpful, inexperienced and ignorant staff were the main cause of grievance, with long queues and lack of sales assistants, the next biggest irritants. 'If you can't get your complaint sorted out with the service provider themselves, the next port of call is an ombudsman,' advises Mike Bartram of the NCC. The personal touch pays dividends, with hairdressers and chemists giving most customer satisfaction and DIY and electrical shops faring worst.
'It's important not to sweep complaints under the carpet,' says Pizza Hut's Rimmer. 'They should be seen as an opportunity to improve your customer service. Our objective is to apologise and turn a customer round. We want them to give us another try.'.