Closing the loop: the vital missing component in complaints handling

You need a strategic approach to managing complaints that focuses on customer outcomes as much as what went wrong.

I recently described complaints as being an under-exploited goldmine of customer feedback. Companies need to widen their focus from purely complaints i.e. dealing with the “expression of dissatisfaction” to a more strategic approach that I refer to as “closing the loop”. This means joining up the three main parts of complaint management into a coherent programme that’s focused on change and improvement in the quality of overall customer outcomes as much as customer satisfaction in relation to the original issue.

Why is this important?

According to market researcher Pierre-Nicolas Schwab, in a 2015 article, the data shows that complaints from customers are not taken that seriously or are ignored.

  • More than 50% of companies don’t answer complaints
  • In 2013, post-complaint satisfaction was still at 1976 levels (RAGE survey 2013)

And, looking at the latest US RAGE survey, $313bn are at risk because of dissatisfaction in the US alone.

It’s time to get strategic.

It’s time to close the loop.


It’s rare that companies adopt this approach – or if they do it’s underpowered – and – as the statistics above show – it represents a great opportunity to create differentiating customer value. The underlying components are simple to describe:

  • Detection – identifying the complaint or the potential complaint and averting it if possible.
  • Handling – dealing with the complaint when made and restoring the customer back to the state they were in before the error occurred
  • Learning – identifying what went wrong at the “root cause” level in relation to either stated or expected customer outcomes and then taking action to:
    – prevent future occurrences
    – identify the potential contribution to the wider outcome-driven operating landscape.

This last part will be different from traditional best practice, but the complaint interaction creates a fantastic opportunity not only to repair the issue but create a level of loyalty – and therefore business impact–over and above what could have been achieved if the complaint had never happened.

In other words, customer complaints can be used as the basis for customer innovation – and in my experience very few organisations are currently doing this.

Detect and survive

Going back to basics. The front end of complaint handling takes place before a complaint is made and, at best, avoids the complaint being made at all. This requires the ability in each contact channel to detect imminent dissatisfaction and take action to deal with it.

Different channels will require different skills to carry out this, for example:

  • Face-to-face channels require staff who can pick up on the visual cues that a customer is potentially irritated.
  • Similarly, an experienced agent in a call centre should be able to detect from a customer’s tone of voice that they are unhappy.

In both these cases situational training and role play can help build competence since not all of your staff will be naturally empathic.

In the digital world we have not yet reached a point where machines can match an experienced front-of-house manager or call centre agent for empathy but there are various ways it can be simulated. It’s possible to detect if a customer’s online journey is particularly slow and then to prompt with help and support messages. Similarly, the availability of an online chat button means that customers can divert to a human (or chatbot) for support rather than getting frustrated with an online experience that’s not working for them.

But online doesn’t just mean websites: social media are increasingly an opportunity –in some cases the preferred channel – for customers to vent their dissatisfaction. Early detection here is crucial given the propensity for some grievances to go viral. It pays to have a light touch when dealing with these – as UK retailer Argos did in a “street speak” exchange with a disgruntled would-be PS4 purchaser back in 2014: the amplification performed by the Twitterati performs a handy bit of brand enhancement.

Dough balls

This front-end detection isn’t always possible however as the customer may be complaining about something long after that initial first point of contact so it’s vital that the customer can raise a complaint easily. In fact, complaint and feedback should invariably be encouraged.

Sometimes you can go to a company’s website and immediately find out how to provide feedback – I recently raised a complaint with UK bank TSB and could find it within a couple of clicks (the eventual resolution wasn’t great but that’s another story) and everyone’s favourite First Direct is similarly easy – but other businesses are a bit more coy, relegating complaints to a more obscure area – in the case of NatWest’s personal banking site for example it’s hidden in the Support Centre which, to me at least is less than blindingly obvious.

This attitude suggests that some businesses don’t welcome complaints or any kind of feedback, which is nuts, since finding out what customers think of you is, you know, quite a good idea.

But people don’t actually like complaining (unless they’re a CX-obsessive like me, but even I can get worn out by the sheer tedium of it) so it pays to make it easy or to incentivise through competitions – entering a prize draw – or vouchers (Pizza Express’s How Did We Dough? for example). Personally, I think the instant gratification of a low-value item is better than the chance of a prize, since it says that the business values your opinion – but maybe I just like dough balls.


Getting your “complaints radar” working on all channels is key to minimising the actual complaints you have to deal with. They may be a great source of feedback, but once a complaint is made it’s costly to process and provide redress so early intervention is always preferable.

In the next part of this series we’ll go on to consider how to handle the complaint effectively when it is made and how focusing on the customer’s intended outcome will help deliver a resolution and an enhanced overall experience that can change a detractor into a raving fan.




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