Consumers Voice Complaints: And Business Owners Should Listen

“Your salespeople didn’t listen when I placed my order, and when I wrote a letter to complain, they still didn’t get it right. I guess they don’t read any better than they hear.”

Daniel Langley, the owner of a central Massachusetts mail order company, took this call on a recent Monday morning. It happened to be a holiday, or he might never have got this close to a customer complaint. He was glad he did.

“I needed to be reminded,” he said, “that the problems are always out there. I tend to hear a lot from customer service about the record-breaking order or the customer calling from New Guinea. I realized we haven’t been paying enough attention to the everyday, not-so-happy news.”

Langley is typical of many business owners and managers in that respect. A lot of companies–large and small–do much less than they could in dealing with customer problems and complaints. This is an unfortunate omission, and an unnecessary one: achieving good customer service is neither costly nor complicated. What’s needed is a well-considered plan, coupled with a positive attitude.

The following steps can help any business convert problems into solutions . . . and into good PR as well.

Fight fire with anything but fire.

An unhappy customer calls expecting a fight. If they aren’t downright angry, they are at the very least upset and on the defensive. The salesperson should be careful not to echo the customer’s attitude. Instead, the person answering the complaint should aim for just the opposite tone: a calm expression of interest in listening to the problem, followed as soon as possible by the desire to solve it. This is not always an easy task, and salespeople should be trained to realize that customer complaints are not (in most cases!) personal attacks. Short of a free case of Perrier, employee courtesy is the most effective means of dousing customer fires.

Quick action is the best action.

And in most cases, it may be the only acceptable one. What you do in the first minute or two may well determine whether you will lose the customer–and create a ripple effect of ill will–or gain a “friend” forever. Research shows that the sooner the problem is resolved, the more likely you are to end up with a happy, loyal customer. Proper handling will turn around 95 percent of customer complaints, but the statistics get gloomier in proportion to the time that is allowed to elapse. Wait an hour, and you have a tentative customer; wait a day, you have a disgruntled one; wait longer, and you may have no customer at all.

Place authority where it will do the most good.

It’s one thing to advocate quick action to quell customer complaints. However, if the manager or other superior in a company’s hierarchy is the only one who can “sign off” on problems, delays will be, in most cases, impossible to avoid. If possible, salespeople should have the authority to approve returns and exchanges and solve other problems–up to a predetermined dollar limit.

Approach problems with a can-do attitude.

Obviously, not all complaints can be resolved to the every customer’s satisfaction. However, each problem should be handled with a sincere attempt to make the customer happy. Working within the rules (and financial limits), the salesperson should give the customer the feeling that it is he or she who is important–not the rule book. What should the price tag be on customer contentment? Good business sense says it can’t veer off into extravagance; however, generosity can pay big dividends. The cost of solving one problem may be far less than losing a valuable account, client, or customer.

Measure the quality of your “damage control.”

Many midsized businesses are following the lead of the larger corporation and asking their customers for feedback. If you aren’t already including some form of questionnaire or survey form in your mailings, you might consider trying a simple postcard or product enclosure.

Watch for patterns in customer problems.

Keep a careful record of all customer complaints and determine if there is a particular product or service that generates the majority of problems. If you can detect a pattern, these customer problems will actually have helped you, in the long run, to target company problems of your own. If no pattern emerges, you will be affirmed in treating each case as separate challenge–and, following the steps outlined above, you will have the tools to make quality customer service one of your primary–and attainable–jobs.

How Did We Do?

Here is the follow-up to customer problems Massachusetts one business owner recently implemented. Each customer complaint is tagged in the customer service data base and automatically “personalized” with the customer name and specific problem addressed.

Dear [Customer]:

Our records show you recently [returned/exchanged/had questions concerning] one of our products. To help us continue to offer quality service, please take a moment to answer the questions below:

  • When you called [with your question/to advise us of a problem], did you receive a courteous response?
  • How much time (approximately) lapsed between your [question, complaint] and our [answer/suggestion as how to resolve it]?
  • Did you receive a satisfactory [refund/item in exchange, answer to your question]?

Thank you!