Your most important customers are those who complain

Some complaints are inevitable.  David Hart, of Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University, explains how your staff can turn them into satisfying and memorable encounters for your customers

THEY may be complaining because service levels are deteriorating, because the product no longer performs to their expectations or even because they have heard that one of your competitors are doing things better than you are. Complaining customers are here to stay and knowing how to deal with them is crucial.

Recently, a Channel 4 documentary painted a very bleak picture of UK call centres, and even suggested that the average Briton spends one day a year on the phone to a service provider.

While the programme was undoubtedly guilty of sensationalism, it did underline a key point: customers only get in touch when they have a specific issue to resolve, and as such expect an efficient, prompt response.

In issue No. 73 of Call Centre Europe, Glenn Bracey pointed out that a surprisingly high proportion of large, supposedly customer-led organisations do not have a formalised complaint handling system. Indeed, one very well known telecommunications firm recently told me their complaints department could only be contacted by post!

The result of such negligence is a row of front-line employees manfully fire fighting against a tirade of unhappy customers, a thankless job at the best of times. What is required is a company-wide commitment to handling complaints in the most timely, professional manner possible.

Some level of customer complaints is inevitable. A well-known academic once suggested companies aiming for zero complaints were “chasing the rainbow’s end”. No matter how standardised the product, how consistent the customer service, there will always be some customers who simply expect more. Just because we believe a customer complaint to be unreasonable does not mean we should dismiss it out of hand.

So, what happens when a complaint is not handled well or, even worse, the customer doesn't even bother complaining in the first place? Here is what can result from customer neglect:

Customers go elsewhere Even the best performing companies lose 10-30 per cent of their customer base each year; imagine what that figure could be if a complaining customer is simply passed between departments?

They talk to others about you On average, a dissatisfied customer tells 10-15 people of their negative experience, who then tell their friends, and so on. It's remarkable how many people can develop a negative attitude of a company despite having never used them!

They won't come back Negative experiences are rarely forgotten, especially when they have resulted in financial loss or emotional hardship. Such lapsed customers are likely to look at your future marketing communications with astonishing levels of cynicism: “They never did that when I was with them”.

Now, how should things be done? Every customer will expect not to wait in a queue or be passed around departments, not having to repeatedly provide personal details and account numbers, etc. But the key to effective complaint handing is listening: only when we can precisely define the problem can we consider how to remedy it.

Therefore, all front-line staff need to let the customer guide the conversation and only interrupt when further clarification is needed. It can sometimes be difficult for staff to “bite their lip” if customers are being unnecessarily harsh or aggressive, but the customer will feel a lot better simply through venting their frustration.

Once the nature of the complaint has been understood, careful judgement is required to evaluate its validity. Can we actually fix this problem? Is it really the organisation’s fault? Is it best to accept responsibility anyway? At this point it is worthwhile looking through previous complaint records to look for any precedents: has this problem occurred before and how did we deal with it? The customer will not necessarily expect their complaint to be resolved simultaneously, so tell your staff that they need not be afraid to consult colleagues and then get back to the customer with a decision.

At this point it is all too easy to assume that throwing money at a customer will encourage them to forgive and forget. Sometimes it might, although sometimes the customer will not be contacting you to make a profit. Often a genuine apology (ideally in written form) or a commitment to improve the product/service for future users will suffice. A large part of customers’ evaluations is how seriously the complaint has been taken. If they feel their opinions are valued and will be acted upon their bond with the company increases.

The emotions associated with complaining (anger, upset and even embarrassment) don't disappear when the act of complaining ends. As a result, some sort of follow-up contact is crucial in maintaining relationships and ensuring any problems have been resolved. Most call centre software should allow customers to be flagged for future contact, meaning a follow-up takes little effort from the company but can have a big impact on the customer. We may not always be able to resolve their complaint, but we can at least show that we appreciate their feedback.

What types of people actually complain? Much academic research has noted that complainers tend to be:

A knowledge of who the complainer is can help us manage the process more effectively (for example, an experienced customer may well be familiar with technical jargon we can use to describe the problem). As customer databases are unlikely to hold such information it is up to the member of staff to quickly decipher the characteristics of the complainer and tailor the communication to their specific needs.

Handling complaints is never an easy or enjoyable challenge. That said, if you can promote a pro-active approach to dealing with dissatisfied customers then there is every chance such negative situations can be turned into satisfying and memorable encounters for the customer. That's the same customer that will tell all of their friends about you if you don't handle their complaint appropriately.


David Hart is a graduate tutor at Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University. His role involves a combination of teaching and research towards a PhD qualification: his current research interests include consumer complaint behaviour, relationship marketing and the marketing of higher education. Contact: