Five ways to get value from customer complaints

Unpacking the way in which my complaint to the AA was handled shows how a more customer-centric approach would have helped.

My recent experience with the AA resulted in a complaint which resulted in me leaving the AA, only to return as part of a much better deal with my car insurance provider. My original experience was bad but the complaints handling was not great either. However, as with all bad experiences, there is much that we can learn – in this case how to handle complaints so that they add value to the organisation and the customer.

My experience and observation of the complaint leads me to highlight five do’s and don’ts that, if followed, will turn your complaints department into a source of value for your organisation.

1.     Don’t hide behind process

Organisation view: we’ll investigate your complaint and respond in x weeks.

Customer view: I’ve been inconvenienced/upset/hurt and I want a response NOW!

Process, process, process – I’ve reengineered a few business processes in my time but whether they’re old and creaky or new and streamlined there will always be an elapsed time and effort required to execute them. However, dissatisfied customers are not remotely interested in these matters: they want their complaint sorted as soon as possible. From the organisation’s point of view that might not be possible for all kinds of reasons and so it makes sense to get that formalised into timescales and to set expectations. That’s reasonable, but there’s a fine line between having a process and making the customer feel they’ve been shoehorned into it. In my case, presenting me with the timescales did a good job of lowering my expectations – the AA responded well within them – but also increased my dissatisfaction with what was going on.

2.     Empower front line staff to make a decision

When I contacted the AA with my complaint my naïve expectation was that perhaps the person I spoke to would be able to deal directly with my complaint and make an offer of recompense there and then. If the person I spoke to could have had access to the record of my dealings with the AA on the night in question then it’s possible that could have happened but in fact the agent’s job was simply to take down the details.

It would arguably have taken less of my time to just report online and clearly would tie up less agent time. However, resolution at first point of contact – as is the case with most agent interactions – is almost always the most satisfactory from the customer point of view and then means the transaction is not hanging around in a workflow.

3.     Be human not legalistic

The tone of the communication I received from the AA built on the process-orientation of their complaint handling approach. The clincher for me was the letter (sent to my wife) but copied to me after she had given permission.

“I have now closed our file, and this is my final response.
If you are unhappy with this, our final response, you may wish to contact a competent Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) provider such as the National Conciliation Service: https://www.nationalconciliationservice.co.uk/  Please note, however, that the AA is not obliged to subscribe to ADR and as we believe that we have dealt fairly with your complaint we do not intend to subscribe to ADR in this case.”

So, in other words, take it or leave it. Now, we were happy with the compensation offered so I wasn’t likely to go to ADR – although as a customer complaints nerd I was tempted to do it just to find out – but is it really necessary to hammer the point home like that? At this point, the AA didn’t know that I was likely to leave and the tone of this response is hardly likely to induce me to stay.

4.     Move from satisfaction to delight (and measure it)

It’s clear to me from the handling of my complaint that the organisation was just interested in managing it in terms of the process with no interest in how I felt about it as a customer. This is a mistake that most companies continue to make and when I talk to clients about it I introduce the idea of the customer hierarchy of needs (shamelessly ripped off from the work of Abraham Maslow). The diagram below summarises it.

The Complainers Hierarchy of Needs

What I find is that many organisations are content to get to level 3 – sort it out – and ignore the value added by delighting customers. I was pleased to have this view reinforced by two speakers at a recent forum event from The Foundation centred around the launch of founder Charlie Dawson’s new book The Customer Copernicus: How To Be Customer-led. I asked a question as to whether there was anything distinctive about the way the customer-centric organisations represented handled complaints and the speakers who responded – one from Handelsbanken and one previously with O2 now leading a start-up – were unequivocal in stressing the importance of handling complaints with particular care and attention. In the Handelsbanken case it resulted in financial gain from new deposits and for the start-up the emphasis was on love-bombing dissatisfied customers.

It also depends what you measure. If process compliance and dealing with complaints within the timescale is your measure of success then you’ll only measure up to level 3 in my model. If you look at retention and satisfaction then you’ll focus more on the outcomes relevant to the business and to the customer.

5.     Learn from the mistake

Long ago in a galaxy far away a wise being once said “The greatest teacher, failure is” and despite not being a practicing Jedi I very much subscribe to this view. Now I can’t claim any insight into how the AA use the information about my original poor service however I’d like to think that the performance of the subcontractor and their ability to capacity plan and deal with spikes in demand received some attention. Given the apparent lack of connectedness between departments I’m inclined to be sceptical however.

Not everything in your list of customer complaints will indicate a systemic error but regular reviews of complaints data should highlight what is wrong with customer-facing processes or the back office that supports them and fixing those can save money. Ignoring it is a wasted opportunity.

Complaints are a valuable asset in building great relationships with customers and making improvements to your business. Treating them simply as part of a process to be managed and assuming a legalistic, combative position with regard to the customer ensures that this asset is squandered.

If you’d like to find out more about how complaints can drive stellar customer experience performance, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Image by Prashant Sharma from Pixabay

I’m thinking of ending things: how not to handle a complaint

The AA saga continues…

Spoiler alerts: 1) this story has a happy ending 2) the film I’m Thinking of Ending Things doesn’t (well, to be quite honest, I’m not sure – it’s a good film but goodness knows what it was about).

After my long night of waiting for the AA I was left with a defunct car at the bottom of my street and, with a bank holiday weekend imminent, it stayed that way until the following Thursday, when a brief stay in a local garage returned it to working order. I thought I’d give it few days before complaining to the AA in case I needed to get them out again and, once it seemed like the new alternator was giving the battery enough power to get around, I called their Customer Solutions line.

Whilst my time invested in this exercise didn’t match the epic wait that was the root cause of my complaint it still took over 20 minutes to get through and register my displeasure. I know this because I recorded the event and the video shows the elapsed time. The content of my discussion wasn’t worth replaying and wouldn’t have been fair to the agent on the other end of the line who was doing a great job under what appeared to be some difficulties with the technology and processes and procedures that wouldn’t exactly be described as customer-centric.

Tell me about it

Despite me quoting my membership number, the agent requested all my details, including those relating to the incident in question. “Don’t you have access to all this on your system?” I asked. Apparently not: the complaints are captured on a completely separate system. I waited patiently whilst my narrative was transcribed.

I finished by stating – since clearly the info wasn’t on her system – that my membership was up for renewal before the end of June so the resolution of this was probably in the AA’s interests. I was told that I would receive an acknowledgement within five working days and then the standard resolution time was up to eight weeks although they were mostly clearing them up within 21 days. I don’t know if I was supposed to be impressed by this display of hyper-efficiency but I wasn’t as my rant to camera when I hung up makes clear.

There was a further impersonal twist to this tale. My wife was driving at the time of the breakdown so it was “her” incident. She’d asked me to report it as a) she was too busy with other things and b) I’m a customer experience expert which means this falls within my remit. However the following day I received an email saying that because of GDPR the AA would have to deal with my wife on this matter. She also received a voice message saying the “final response” (no right of appeal then?) would be with her in 7 to 10 days. She then emailed them giving her permission to deal with me but this made no difference.

The happy ending

The reason it may have made no difference was that the AA’s response came back sooner than expected and, good news, the complaint “had been upheld” and a small compensatory payment was on its way (which just about covered our restaurant bill and taxi fare). So in fact the AA had exceeded the expectations they had set.

The ambiguous coda

If this were a Marvel movie you’d get this “stinger” after the credits had rolled to set up the next instalment. At the same time as the letter from the AA was sitting on our doormat I was on the phone to my car insurance company to discuss my premium, having gone through the annual ritual of getting quotes from GoCompare (other services are available). This conversation took twice as long as the AA complaint but was a much more enjoyable experience as I was able to get my premium reduced and get breakdown cover included. “There’s just one problem” said the very helpful agent, “the cover is with the AA”. (I had told her I wasn’t planning to renew with them.)

So I ended up cancelling my breakdown cover with the AA to end up with breakdown cover… from the AA. Modern business is truly a wonderful thing.

In the final part of this trilogy, I’ll draw some lessons for customer service organisations.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

When statistics hide the truth about customer complaints

Ofgem’s complaints report shows the problem – and the opportunities

The trouble with being a customer experience-obsessive is that as soon as you hear an item on the news about complaints reports, your carefully-planned day is ruined as you have to follow it up out of curiosity, weird as that may sound. Thus, today, the news that UK’s energy regulator Ofgem had published its review of complaints was pure catnip for me. And as someone committed to helping organisations (NextTen’s not currently working in the energy sector but that doesn’t prevent me from having an interest – and of course we’re open to offers!) I’m interested in what these reports say about the state of complaint handling – the “Cinderella” of customer experience, as I’ve said many times before.

On the naughty step

Although the survey of over 3,000 complainants found that satisfaction with complaint handling had improved by 5% since the last survey in 2016, the proportion of customers who are dissatisfied (57%) remains much higher than those satisfied with how their complaint had been dealt with.

The main contributors to high levels of dissatisfaction were the length of time taken to resolve the issue, not being kept up to date with the progress of the complaint and suppliers not providing complainants with a clear view of how long the resolution will take

Ofgem’s statement gives the impression of a regulator who’s had enough of energy companies’ lackadaisical approach, having put three of the smaller outfits – First Utility, Ovo Energy and Utilita – under compliance investigation and requiring all the others to share their improvement plans. This is admirable, as in other regulated industries the relevant bodies don’t always give the impression of being on the side of great customer experience.

I know from my experience of working in banking, another regulated industry, that mention of any investigation or referral to the FCA is enough to galvanise action, so this will generate some useful action, although there’s a risk that the effort spent in responding to the regulator and justifying action would be better spent on the actual improvement work.

Some of the responses by energy companies – as reported on BBC Radio’s “You and Yours” consumer programme later in the day – were already edging towards the defensive. Utilita said that the report was looking at complaints up to November 2017 and since then it had reduced the number of complaints. Indeed, the overall number of complaints has halved since 2014 so, superficially, it sounds like an industry moving in the right direction.

Lies, damn lies…

Taking a look at Utilita’s data – available on their website – is revealing. Overall, complaints have dropped between Q2 2017 and Q2 2018. But whilst the last quarter shows a drop-off in overall complaints, the numbers resolved at +1 day and after 8 weeks had dropped, suggesting that there’s a rump of really difficult complaints that are tough to resolve.

And that’s where the problem lies both for external observers like me, and insiders. If you can find a statistic that shows – even “proves” – that you’re doing the right thing, you will certainly want to use it. But the old adage “There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies – and statistics” applies here – the statistics you don’t share are the ones that are much more revealing.

Whilst it’s interesting that Utilita’s time to resolve is increasing I’m more interested in the stories that underpin the data. I can’t tell what the specific issues are from the data, but I’d hope that any recurrent and intractable underlying causes were being dealt with.

…and tweets

You and Yours helpfully quoted some social media comments – about energy companies in general it should be said – which I found much more illuminating. Most referred to the difficulty in contacting customer service to complain or to switch or just to talk to a human being. Again, that’s just a non-representative sample to support a news story, but if it were me even one of these complaints would be too many.

And that’s the problem: statistics will tell you that you’re broadly improving, but customer stories will pin-point the pain. And focusing on the really painful experiences will drive fundamental improvements in broken processes that, when fixed, will provide a platform for overall improvements in customer experience.

Balancing act

As a head of customer experience or complaints, you have the challenge of making the case for improvement, so you have to balance powerful anecdotal evidence of dissatisfaction with trend data to make the case for funding customer experience improvements in preference to other important projects. It’s a problem we see all the time at NextTen and over the next few weeks we’ll be publishing ideas on how you can make a robust case for powerful customer experience. It’s far too important to wait for a regulator to kick you into action.

Time to junk the satisfaction survey

Why your customer strategy should focus on complaints

I was half listening to the news the other day when I heard a story about a couple who were selling their new-build house at less than they paid for it “because it was sh*t”. Apparently, the poor people had got so fed up with the number of things wrong that they had wearied of their constant complaints to the builders and decided that to put it on the market. Presumably they’d felt that the loss they’d realise on the sale would be less than the stress of continuing to live there.

I can’t find the reference to the story – there’s only so many times you can type four-letter words into Google – so I don’t know who the builders in question were, although they did issue a statement to say that the customers had received compensation and repairs in line with the contract they had signed. Whoever they were though they have missed a massive opportunity. In fact, they should have paid the couple handsomely for taking the time to complain, because

complaints are the best customer feedback you can get.

So wrong, it’s right

Most companies I know invest time and money in finding out what their customers think of them. The problem with this “voice of the customer” approach is that, when applied to all your customers, it just produces an average view – i.e. what keeps most of them satisfied. Even the sainted Net Promoter Score approach frequently fails to ask the net promoters why they are so enthusiastic about the company.

I think you could just junk most customer satisfaction surveys as the surefire way to get meaningful feedback is to make it easy for the customer to provide you with it, positive or negative.

Think about it: customers who love you or who have just had amazing service will want to tell you about it and those who haven’t will also do the same.

“That’s all very well” I hear you say, “but what about the ones who don’t complain and just leave.”

To which my reply is: too bad – you probably didn’t act on the feedback from your complainers earlier – and those middling-dissatisfied customers would be unlikely to respond to your customer-wide survey.

Inconvenient truths

I’ve noticed that organisations generally don’t give as much attention to complaints and negative feedback as they should do, and I think the reasons for this is that there’s a bias – reassuringly it’s a human trait – towards good news. We’re hard-wired to create a story around the way we want things to be rather than how they actually are, or indeed, how they appear to someone else.

Customers who fail to fully appreciate the products and services we’ve spent a massive effort perfecting are an inconvenience, a distraction from the narrative we’re trying to create, even when their lack of appreciation is down to something we’ve failed to deliver.

Our bias, therefore, is towards those customers who fit the norm. Unfortunately, they are not the source of innovation and improvement.

Just about managing

Dealing with customers who don’t fit the norm – i.e. the massively dissatisfied ones – is the domain of complaints management which is a frequently neglected and under-resourced area. The overriding attitude is to get the complaint dealt with as efficiently as possible, making sure the customer isn’t over-compensated along the way. Sure, you need to provide redress and to put things right, but the opportunity is often missed to find out what the customer’s desired outcome was and to do what you could to deliver that outcome, not just the initial product service.

For example, the hapless couple in the new-build house probably wanted something more than a non-leaking roof over their heads (although apparently even this was beyond their builder’s capability), they wanted a home. And whilst this isn’t an unusual outcome, I bet the building firm didn’t have the nous to sit down with their customers and find out what it was about a home that they wanted – their unspoken needs if you like. Finding and delivering against these, rather than ineptly repairing an initial botched job, would have created delighted customers.

Complaints at the core

Building a customer strategy around complaints is the efficient, if counter-intuitive, route to increasing the number of delighted customers. The elements of such a strategy should answer the following questions:

  • How easy do we make it for customers to provide feedback? (Answer: it should be very easy, and through multiple channels, including social media.)
  • How do we resource those channels?
  • How far do we empower front line people to sort out complaints focusing on customer outcomes?
  • How do we learn from feedback?
  • How do we use the learning to be able to anticipate and deal with complaints before they happen?
  • Who is responsible for driving through the improvements that result from root cause analysis?

Focus your strategy on answering these questions and you can drop your customer satisfaction surveys.

Net Promoter Score – what’s the point?

It all depends on the context

An unwanted set of medical visits last week resulted in an equally unwanted set of follow-up texts.

My local hospital trust “would like me to think about your recent experience in the Emergency Department. How likely are you to recommend us to your friends and family if they needed similar care or treatment? Reply 1 for Extremely likely, 2 for Likely, 3 for Neither likely nor unlikely, 4 for Extremely unlikely or 6 for Don’t know. Please reply today, your feedback is anonymous and important to us and helps us to improve our service…”

There was no follow up question in their survey – clearly they were just wanting a number.

My GP’s surgery then did exactly the same.

Yes, the much-touted and widely-discussed Net Promoter Score (NPS) was at work again!

Well, actually the experience and the care in both cases were great but I didn’t reply, but because the context of the experience means that I think NPS has no significance in isolation. If I had responded with 8 but with no opportunity for follow-on comment how can they react? If the hospital looks at their scores how can they do anything meaningful unless they have some view of what aspect of my experience is not great in the my opinion.

No choice

It got me thinking what do people use NPS for? Picture the scene if you can: someone close to you is suddenly taken ill. The LAST thing you are going to do is say “Hmm, let’s take you to XYZ Hospital, they have a really great patient experience and I’d heartily recommend it!”

If you lived in my neck of the woods you would only have one choice in an emergency, assuming it didn’t require an ambulance: the nearest hospital. And that’s in London – an area not short of “competitor” hospitals; elsewhere you most likely wouldn’t have a choice.

Similarly, signing up for a GP is not like having a bank account or a phone service: you tend to sign up long-term and don’t like to switch unless you move house. You might recommend individual doctors within a practice to your nearest and dearest depending on your experience but that’s not the question.

I asked a GP friend of mine who’d moved from my surgery to another practice whether they were using a similar measure. “Oh yes” she said, “we do the scoring as specified and then we have to send the results to the Department of Health.” As far as I can tell there is no follow-up or any expectation to do anything differently. The score was being used little more than a traffic light to gauge the surgery was performing above a minimum threshold.

So, what’s the point of NPS?

Despite its misapplication in parts of the National Health Service, the measure is partially useful, but it does not deliver quite the impact it claims:

  • If I have a great experience from supplier A where various competitors are readily available, I’ll form an emotional attachment to the supplier that provided it. I might quite like Supplier A but part of the attachment is based on confidence they can do the job and trust that this will happen consistently.
  • I’ll be more much likely to tell someone that I recommend supplier A and much of the time I will give them a 9 or 10. In this scenario NPS accuracy is working.
  • I might be using NPS after a visit to a retailer. If I got what I wanted, and the assistant had smiled at me nicely then I would be more than happy to give a nice round 10. Then I would most likely forget I had ever been there and I never raise it in conversation again. The scoring system is not working so well.

Because it’s focused on measuring my reaction to specific events NPS is not a complete picture. The experience I have had needs to be part of a journey towards a particular outcome. To use my recent healthcare example, that journey won’t be complete until I have had a follow-up appointment and further treatment, if needed, a process involving referral and booking into the appropriate clinic. My satisfaction (not likelihood to recommend) won’t be determined until my desired outcome – good health, reassurance about future health concerns – is achieved.

And it still won’t involve me recommending any form of medical treatment, no matter how great the experience is.

Building on success

At NextTen we find it’s much more helpful to talk about customer success which we define as a combination of fulfilling the customer’s desired outcome and providing a good experience. Using these two dimensions we can build a customer advocacy matrix. High advocacy companies combine a great customer experience with a great outcome delivery, although it’s possible to achieve business success with an OK or even below-average experience as long as you deliver the customers’ desired outcomes as low-cost airlines continue to prove.

  • Ryanair and Spirit: poor customer experience but great profitability.
  • Kingfisher Airlines: great experience but went bust!

Context is everything

NPS can certainly tell you if you’re in the high advocacy quadrant of the matrix, but you’ll need additional qualitative data to understand why you’re there, or if you’re not, where you need to improve. And if your market context isn’t one where high levels of customer choice or switching occur then you would be better off measuring something meaningful like the number of and reasons for customer complaints.

Five Go Mad at GWR

Even a fictional character can have a bad customer experience

George was feeling a bit strange. Together with her cousins Dick, Julian and Anne – not forgetting her dog Timmy – The Famous Five, as they’d become known, had been revived for an advertising campaign by GWR so here they were, sitting on a brand-new electric train, heading down to Dorset for some jolly adventures, no doubt involving spies and some crude characterisations.

But being brought back in 2018 was making George feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t just that, as the most “woke” member of the Five, she was beginning to find her fellow adventurers’ attitudes more than distinctly outdated. It wasn’t that everyone was sitting on the train staring at their smartphones instead of chatting and sharing out bottles of ginger beer like in the good old days – George had got her own iPhone and was looking forward to discussing the manipulation of social media by foreign powers with her father the world-famous scientist later. No, it was that she was really actually, physically uncomfortable in her brand-new seat.

To take her mind off it, she flicked to the GWR page on Twitter. There was that rather annoying picture of the Five turning cartwheels on an imaginary picnic in an imaginary countryside with a brand new high-speed train running in the background. From some of the comments on Twitter it seemed like the train might be imaginary too, as quite a few seemed to be cancelled on a regular basis. That might explain why there were so many people crammed into her compartment.

Oh well, #GWRAdventures seemed like a jolly hashtag and, of course, was all part of a jolly campaign that The Famous Five were part of. Some customers didn’t seem to be keen on joining in the fun though, and a suggestion that they should tweet some lovely views seemed to produce pictures of broken seats, worn carpets and more overcrowding. Honestly, people could be really grumpy at times!

As she reflected further she realised her brand-new seat, whilst not broken, was really quite uncomfortable, even for an imaginary character in a children’s adventure story. Having become bored with the incessant trolling on Twitter she took look at Facebook. Goodness, people were even more grumpy on the GWR Facebook page than they were on Twitter! There was a lot of moaning about cancelled trains and, she was encouraged to read, some people found the new seats were jolly uncomfortable too.

Strangely though, there wasn’t much response from GWR to these complaints on either the Facebook page or the Twitter account. They seemed awfully keen to respond if someone said something nice but didn’t really engage with any negative comments at all other than to say that “people’s concerns would be recorded”. Really, thought George, that seemed rather impolite to say the least.

Although George liked being out of doors, solving crimes and rescuing her father from the clutches of evil villains, she thought if she ever grew up and had to settle down she’d like to be a head of customer complaints. You could really get things done if you listened to what the customers found most annoying, were honest with them about your shortcomings and then did something about it. That sounded like the kind of grown-up adventure she’d really enjoy.

But maybe for another company, not for GWR.

Closing the loop – listen to Yoda

For a really effective way to manage complaints profitably, you have to be prepared to learn

I don’t often look to fictional characters for management advice, but if you’ve had any exposure to the Star Wars universe, you’ll know that diminutive Jedi master Yoda is capable of some cornball wisdom that occasionally hits the spot.

When it comes to complaints management his line from The Last Jedi “the greatest teacher failure is” pinpoints the difference between organisations that thrive on complaints management and those that would rather sweep their customers’ gripes under the carpet.

As I’ve mentioned before, complaints are a goldmine of opportunity for turning grumpy customers into raving fans and gaining enhanced revenue as a result. But to do this you have to have a fully joined-up approach that covers detection, handling and learning.

Back in 1990, Peter Senge, then Director of the Systems Thinking and Organisational Learning Programme at Sloan School, MIT, published a seminal book, The Fifth Discipline, that introduced the idea of the “Learning Organisation”. Re-reading it, I’m struck by how much advice it offered appears to fall into the category of the “bleeding obvious” – but on reflection has still not been adopted by most businesses.

Maybe the concept of a learning organisation sounds too academic, non-action orientated, even un-business-like to have gained real traction, but in the world of customer complaints a learning organisation focused on customer outcomes is exactly what you should strive to become.

Discipline

Let’s reflect on Senge’s five disciplines of a learning organisation and see what they tell us:

  1. Systems thinking – the need to view the organisation as a joined-up whole, where actions in one part may have a positive or negative implication in another. Forgetting to think systemically is a trap that complaints managers can fall into. Actions with a positive effect in one area may result in negative effects elsewhere. Looking at end-to-end process rather than silo boundaries can help prevent this.
  2. Personal mastery – the requirement for individuals to commit to a process of wider learning, as the basis of organisational learning and therefore impact. This is straying into Yoda territory, but you need people who are committed to their continuous development so whilst fairly obvious, is key to managing complaints effectively, particularly as wider perspectives can be considered.
  3. Mental models – the need to test the assumptions held by individuals and the organisation about the way things work. Challenging these is essential for customer-centric innovation, particularly in response to complaints.
  4. Shared vision – seen by Senge as essential in motivating staff to learn. Although vision is seen by some as an outmoded concept, anything that motivates staff – I’d prefer a strong statement of purpose (e.g. our purpose is to use our customers’ feedback as the basis for improvement) – is valid here.
  5. Team learning – this“Fifth Discipline” is where the organisation builds on its individual responses to learn collectively about how it can improve. The benefit of this approach is that the problem-solving ability of an organisation is significantly enhanced, so arriving at a solution to a complaint-generated issue should be easier with this discipline in place.

In the loop

My back-of-an-envelope analysis of Senge’s model says that at least 80% of it is critical to closing the loop on complaints, but what is this loop that needs closing?

Put simply, there is a virtuous circle that organisations can put themselves in where what you learn from a failure to delight your customers feeds into improvement activity and a renewed commitment to detect when customers are unhappy.

In fact, this process is a version – admittedly rather high-level – of Senge’s first and most important discipline, systems thinking. So, how do you inject this approach into learning from customer complaints?

Beat the system

Anyone reading this piece who’s involved in complaints will be familiar with the various quality and other techniques used in Root Cause Analysis (RCA). I won’t reiterate them here – like any tool different techniques are applicable in different circumstances – but there’s a danger with the RCA approach. You may be able to get solutions that address the complaint but miss the big picture – or the organisation may feel that the big problem that’s preventing a breakthrough in customer satisfaction is too difficult to address.

The organisation can then find itself in the opposite of a virtuous circle where the solutions implemented from RCA fix point problems in the customer journey but don’t have much overall impact. As a result, RCA will be starved of the resource it needs to do a thorough job on the complaints in its workstack, results will be sub-optimal, and the cycle will continue.

To avoid this, complaints organisations need to make sure that they focus on customer outcomes – i.e. the underlying reason why the customer was using the product/service in the first place before things went wrong. This big picture thinking increases the likelihood of everyone addressing the underlying issues and, if your organisation is practising the other disciplines, it will pull together to fix them.

Chicken

Here in Britain we’re recovering from a crisis (I may be exaggerating) in the fast-food world. Fried chicken purveyor KFC found itself unable to meet demand for its fowl-in-fat products following a switch of logistics supplier. The situation was so bad that it had to close most of its stores while it sorted out the issues. This is a clearly a big cock-up (I’m not the first to make that joke) and the advantage, if there is one, is that the error is glaringly obvious and therefore getting to the root cause should be straightforward – and resources will be thrown at the problem to solve it quickly.

KFC have done a good job of responding, at least in terms of publicity, with a public apology and long-term probably won’t suffer too much.

However, what’s obvious, to me, is that KFC failed to pass on the learning from one supplier to another: the logistics involved in getting chicken hygienically from slaughter to fryer are highly sophisticated, apparently. I assume that their previously logistics supplier had refined their approach in response to customer and front-line feedback, but this learning clearly hadn’t made it to the new provider. In an outsourced environment, keeping the virtuous circle of a learning organisation in motion is even more of a challenge.

As Yoda might have said, “learning organisation the biggest challenge is”.

 

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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.

Opportunity

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.

Radar

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.

 

 

 

Customer service basics can make all the difference (part 2)

In the first part of this two-part article I dealt with some examples of keeping the customer informed and managing their expectations. There’s a common theme emerging in both those and the following examples of basic customer service – and my experiences over the post-Christmas period emphasised this:

Communication is everything

Here’s the remaining four of my six basics…

3) Don’t hassle the customer

My in-store experience at Warren Evans was a classic example of getting the level of attention just right. We were greeted by an assistant, Michelle, who determined our needs, then showed us the range of potential beds. She then left us to get on with working out which one we liked and when we’d made our choice, took us through the transaction, including the commitment to dates.

Warren Evans is by no means the only store that can get this right – it’s something every floorwalker in a store should be trained up in and, in my experience, most stores can get it right. However, when stores move online, the ability to judge how much attention a customer needs seems to go out of the window. In part this is understandable since the customer is not visible in the same way as a physical store, but sites often over-compensate by forever pestering you to provide feedback or reminding you that you had the temerity to leave goods in your cart without completing the transaction.

Feedback and nudging customers to complete make good sense commercially but don’t always lead to customer satisfaction. Involving customers actively in the evolution of online services helps you to get these details right.

4) Pay attention to unspoken needs

My most frustrating recent experience came on my birthday at the beginning of January, where I had arranged to meet family at a central London restaurant. It’s a reasonably well-established American-themed venue and seemed just about right for a lively celebration. On arrival it appeared to be too lively as our table was close to the bar area where a singer/guitarist was providing live entertainment for the evening. I did a quick tour of the restaurant looking for a quieter table, at which point the manager spotted what I was doing and immediately moved us to a better table. So far so good, sadly there will be some negatives to come…

5) Deal brilliantly with complaints

…and indeed, the restaurant managed to get so many basics wrong that a 15-point complaint email followed. However, the initial attention to my dissatisfaction with the table was a great example of one element of dealing brilliantly with complaints and that’s dealing with them before they happen.

A further example followed when two aperitifs took 20 minutes to not arrive. On raising this – an expression of dissatisfaction, so a complaint in all but name – we were offered them gratis.

Overall, despite good food and great company there were other basic restaurant service elements that left something to be desired, so I emailed the restaurant at length. I received an email the following day from the manager we had seen who demonstrated the following good practice:

  • Acknowledged the error(s)
  • Apologised
  • Offered compensation, even though none had been requested.

In this case the compensation is four free dinners, which we’ll take up soon, if only to check that the promised improvement in service has been implemented. Sometimes I think it’s a mixed blessing having me as a customer…

6) Don’t be average

Part of the problem with the restaurant was that, whilst Ben the manager was attentive, the other service staff didn’t seem to be on the same page. Certainly, they were not responding to what should be a given at a venue like this: that my desired outcome is a great evening out, not just some reasonable food and drink.

Many retail outfits – particularly in the food and hospitality sector – are content to provide average transactions. I reflected on this when writing the first part of this piece in a nearby outlet of a coffee chain (inexplicably named after a decadent Roman emperor). I ordered my flat white and it was prepared in short order but, whilst the assistant wasn’t in any way unpleasant he wasn’t exactly personable.

I don’t expect hugs or a life-transforming experience when I’m buying a coffee, but I couldn’t help thinking an opportunity had been missed for a bit more human interaction, otherwise I might as well be buying coffee from a vending machine.

First world problems?

Dissecting one’s own experiences like this is an occupational hazard when you’re in my line of business and sometimes it can seem like I am obsessed with what might be termed ‘first world problems’ but the problem for first world businesses is that competitive advantage can be gained from getting all these things right, particularly when so many companies don’t.

Will you seize the opportunity to fix your service basics and get ahead of the competition?