The missed opportunity in complaints handling that might save your marriage!

Complaint handling departments mostly miss the opportunity to turn a dissatisfied customer into a raving fan.

I recently talked about how critical it is to detect and, if possible, avert complaints before they even happen. If a complaint does occur, it is so important to make sure it is easy for the customer to provide as much feedback as they want – ideally in the form they want. Once you have received the feedback you have a critical and short time period to not only resolve, but create a raving fan.

Be careful, time is very sensitive in these situations. Any perception of slowness can quickly make a situation considerably worse. Dealing with the complaint effectively – and simultaneously creating a significant jump in loyalty – needs a new and more innovative approach.

Understanding the“hierarchy of needs”

I’ve noticed that complaints are something that most organisations avoid like the plague! No-one wants to admit to making mistakes –all too often the attitude is to deal only with the specifics of the complaint, throw some money or gift at the customer as compensation and then move straight on to the next one. Timescales are often set by a regulator, which leads to incorrect priorities and dysfunctional behaviour.

This is about as far away from customer-centric as it’s possible to get and ignores what I call the Complainer’s Hierarchy of Needs. This is  different from the Hierarchy of Needs developed by Abraham Maslow – except that it also has five levels:

1) Hear me. I want someone to be able to listen, understand and resonate with my complaint. I don’t need an argument, I don’t want excuses and I certainly don’t want shallow apologies with no real action. Ask me questions, but only if it helps unpack the full story.

2) Acknowledge my pain. I wouldn’t be contacting you unless I had suffered in some way. It may be minor, it may be a “first world problem” but you’ve fallen short and I’m upset. Don’t overdo it but please show some genuine empathy.

3) Sort it out.At an absolute minimum, I want to be put back in the state I was in before you screwed up and I’d like some form of compensation for my inconvenience. I also want it quickly – preferably almost immediately.

4) Satisfy me. Remember I was a pretty big fan of your company before this and I’d like to believe this is a one-off and get back to those happy times when you delighted me on a regular basis. Now, what have you got? I’m not talking about a box of chocolates – I’m talking about an outcome that has value to me – assuming you understand me well enough.

5) Delight me and keep me loyal. Give me a reason to stay with you – what’s our future together going to look like? If the value is perceived to be there I will invest a bit of time asking your questions but make sure the outcome is a great reason to stay.

The best part of breaking up

And if that sounds like getting back after a bust-up with your significant other then it’s supposed to be – yes, it’s that serious! Bad significant other experiences have resulted in divorce rates at46% in the US. Interestingly, according to data from NewVoiceMedia, 44% of US consumers switch to a competitor following a poor customer service experience.Like disenchanted marriage partners, customers will exercise that level of rebellion if they don’t get what they think they need.

People in a failing marriage often cite a lack of empathy as a key reason driving the split. Customer rebellion is driven by exactly the same issue. We simply don’t recognise the complainer’s hierarchy of needs sufficiently. We extrapolate that to a belief the company does not care, and our reaction is heightened as a result. In fact, as far as complaints handling goes, we only recognise part of it, getting as far as sorting out the problem and providing what the company views as appropriate compensation without sufficiently understanding the customer’s desired outcome.

The Missed Opportunity

Aligning the customer hierarchy to the what the company does in response is fundamental:

1) Listen. Provide a channel that “works for the customer” – which often means giving choice. Technology is now more widely available and relatively cheap as an enabler. Behind that enabler should be a non-judgemental, open and sympathetic “listener” for the complainer. If you receive the complaint in writing, responding quickly with follow up is key. Customers will react much more favourably to a personal conversation, so call them back within two hours of receiving the complaint.

2) Empathise.This bit is almost obvious to state but much harder to deliver. Empathy is acknowledging that whatever happened was in some way unpleasant or inconvenient for the customer and showing the customer you genuinely care. This is not as easy as it seems. Some customers want only a “leave it with me, give me ten minutes and I will sort it” style response whereas others want more time to air their views even if that is simply to “blow off steam”. Of course, some people are more naturally empathic than others, but it can be taught and if sufficiently practised, internalised into everyday handling that is repeatedly exceptional. Make sure it’s on your training programme for all.

3) Empower people to act – rapidly. It’s too easy to hide behind processes, procedures and rules. Too much “guidance” is in place because an organisation doesn’t trust its staff sufficiently to do the right thing. Having to check or refer upwards again and again, wastes time, reduces productivity, andmotivation, and further infuriates an already-angry customer. The key here is empowerment and flexibility to allow the agent to do what is right. Post hoc checks and regular reviews are a much better way to make sure that staff are doing “the right things” instead of “doing things right”. There is a big difference!

4) Make sure your customers are satisfied. The emphasis is on the word “your”. If you think of the customer as “your customer” rather than the company’s customers, then that is a subtle but significant first step.Very often customers are happy just to have the mistake corrected or a refund provided but equally often we don’t think of asking how the experience of complaining was for the customer and, more importantly, how they feel about the outcome at a detailed level. The investment required to find this out is minimal yet it’s a practical demonstration that you weren’t just following a process, you had flexibility and you really care.

5) Understand the customer’s desired outcome and take it up a level to delight them. Having got a satisfied customer, you need to enhance the relationship and take it to a level beyond what it was before. The single most critical success factor to achieving delight is to understand what their desired outcomeis and deliver it better than the competition. And the key to this lies not only in your feedback and handling on the specifics driving the complaint. The key is to drive a deeper understanding of the outcomes and related experiences that are most important to the customer and creating an environment to deliver against it. At a basic level, reversing their negative feedback – specifically the things they couldn’t do as a result of your screw-up – gives you the starting point for understanding their desired outcomes at a deeper level, aligning your products, services and supporting processes to make it happen. This might sound expensive but the loyalty and revenue uplift that this can bring will make it an immensely profitable and rewarding exercise.

You read it here:applying this approach can make customer complaints into a revenue generator and there’s a case for treating it a profit centre. That’s slightly different to the norm don’t you think?

In the next part of this series we’ll “close the loop” on complaints by making sure that you genuinely learn from your mistakes and build a better understanding of your customers’ desired outcome

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