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Leveraging Customer Complaints Into Customer Loyalty
An effective feedback system is worth its weight in service reps
By Craig Cochran

Many organizations consider complaints to be anything but what they are: urgent calls to action from a trusted source. When a customer complains, your organization is at a crossroads where one of two results can occur:

You’ll address the causes of the complaint, let the customer know the actions you’ve taken and strengthen your customer’s loyalty.
You’ll fiddle-faddle around, fail to address the causes, never let the customer know anything and ultimately lose that customer.

A complaint is really a fork in the road, and the choice of paths couldn’t be more different. Go one way and ensure your long-term success; go the other and strangle slowly from your own ineptitude.

Only committed customers bother to complain
Why don’t more companies recognize complaints as opportunities for improvement? It’s because they don’t see complaints as opportunities at all. Instead, they see them as distractions generated by people intent on being bothersome. Such companies fail to realize that only committed customers bother to complain. Here are some of my favorite misguided comments about complaints:

Customers only complain when they think we’re not paying attention to them. This view is rooted in the belief that not paying attention to customers is OK. Paying attention to customers is (or should be) your organization’s mission.
Customers complain because they have nothing better to do. This attitude indicates a deep disdain for the customer. As anyone who’s done it knows, complaining takes a great deal of time and trouble, and customers who do it generally have something worthwhile to say.
Customers are just nitpicking. This view stems from the belief that details don’t matter. Details are everything, though. Customers who complain about details should receive special attention and thanks because they’ve delved deeper into your product than other users have.
Customers who complain are just trying to get a discount. This mindset characterizes customers as penny-pinching misers, an almost laughable attitude in these competitive times. If your customers want to save a few bucks, they can easily find a vendor that will cut the price they’re paying for your product. Companies will always compete with lower-priced suppliers.

The truth is, customers who complain are committed to your organization. They expend time, effort and emotion to communicate their experiences, and they do it for free. Someone indifferent to your organization wouldn’t bother to take this trouble.

Smart organizations make complaining easy
You must do everything you can to encourage customer feedback, especially if it’s negative. Focus on your customers’ convenience rather than your own and provide several ways for them to contact you.

The first method you should consider is a toll-free number answered by knowledgeable personnel. This provides an easy way for customers to pick up a phone and call you from anywhere. A round-the-clock staff is ideal, but if this isn’t possible, provide clear instructions for leaving a message and return the customer’s call promptly in the morning. Personal contact is critical for telephone communication. People who choose to contact a company via telephone usually do so because they want to speak to a real person. That person should be knowledgeable about the product in question and ready to assist the customer. Wooden, scripted answers aren’t enough.

When using a toll-free number to capture feedback, be sure to:

Assist with real troubleshooting steps (if applicable), but don’t insult the customer’s intelligence.
Capture all details of the problem if it isn’t something that can be resolved over the phone.
Get the customer’s contact information.
Let your customers know that their problems will be investigated, and someone will call them back with the results.

Another useful method of customer communication is the Internet. Web pages, chat rooms and e-mail are commonplace tools these days, and a growing number of people prefer these media to more traditional forms of communication. Organizations must recognize this and build their complaint-capturing systems around their customers’ cyber-preferences. A good Web site offers customers:

Clearly defined information fields that ensure a comprehensive description of the problem
Access to the company from anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week
Consistency in the complaint process
An impersonal approach, which some customers prefer

Keep in mind that Web sites can never provide the same psychological satisfaction offered by a human-to-human encounter over the phone. The Web’s immediacy, while offering numerous benefits, also presents some drawbacks, including:

No opportunity to personally convey empathy about the customer’s problem
No ability to probe issues beyond the constraints of the Web tool
Limited ability to provide troubleshooting guidance or quick fixes
An impersonal approach, which some customers find dissatisfying
Perception that complaints might disappear

These issues can be overcome by following up with customers via telephone or e-mail. The follow-up can serve purposes such as letting customers know you’ve received their message, soliciting more details, expressing empathy for their situations and offering advice. The point is that your Web-based complaint system must include some interactivity. A one-way communication medium is completely unsatisfactory when a customer has experienced a problem.

Use teams for best results
Everyone, even the most objective individual, enters a problem-solving situation equipped with certain biases and prejudices. In a similar way, everyone applies his or her unique skills and analytical abilities to a problem. It’s a rare person who’s both clever and objective enough to solve complex problems. That’s why team problem solving nearly always produces the best results.

A problem-solving team draws from a wealth of strengths, experiences and perspectives, and typically the best corrective actions are products of this kind of diversity. A team can moderate a single individual’s natural tendency to jump to conclusions before examining the full range of possible causes.

However, organizations often tackle team problem solving without first taking the steps needed to ensure its success.

These include:

Defining a problem-solving method. A team requires a basic road map for how it plans to conduct its work. Without this structure, teams flounder in confusion and frustration. A problem-solving method provides structure and enables everyone to understand where the team stands in the overall process. It also prevents people from short-circuiting the process by choosing solutions before the causes are fully understood. Fundamental problem-solving steps include clearly defining the problem, determining the causes, determining actions to remove the causes, implementing actions and determining effectiveness.
Providing a team facilitator. Facilitation is key to managing team dynamics, but it’s often neglected due to time and cost considerations. I’ve often heard the remark, “Our people don’t have a facilitator for their normal jobs. Why would they need one when they meet to solve problems?” The answer is that problem solving isn’t part of most people’s jobs, and they might not be completely comfortable with the role. A facilitator can address team member’s concerns, moderate conflict and keep the group focused on the problem at hand.
Applying project management to corrective actions. Lack of follow-through breeds like a disease in many organizations. Problem solvers get started with good intentions, make impressive progress and then slowly fizzle out. The initial steps of problem solving offer some excitement, and few intelligent people can resist the challenge of investigating a problem, determining the causes and brainstorming corrective actions.

But that’s the easy part. The hard work and drudgery occurs when you carry out the corrective actions. That requires discipline.

Tell your customers
Customers aren’t familiar with your organization’s internal affairs. All they know is what they’ve experienced with your products. They might bring problems to your attention, and you might correct them, but your efforts will count for nothing unless your customers know what you’ve done.

The final step of every corrective action on a complaint must be notifying your customers. You must let them know exactly what you’ve done to address their concerns and how that action will benefit them. Don’t close a complaint until you’ve taken these steps.

What exactly should an organization say to a customer following a corrective action? Here are the specifics:

“We’re sorry you had a problem.” This isn’t conceding weakness. The organization is expressing genuine empathy for the inconvenience the customer has experienced.
“Thanks for letting us know about it.” The customer complaint is a rare gift that’s laid in your lap. Only a fool wouldn’t be thankful for it.
“Here’s what we’ve done about the problem.” It’s nice to say “sorry” and “thank you,” but what’s even more important is to say what you’ve done about the problem. Describe the corrective action in concise terms that anyone can understand.
“We’d appreciate you giving us another chance.” The final part of the conversation is an appeal. You must directly ask for the customer’s business. It’s not something that can be taken for granted.

The objective for an effective complaint system is to leverage the complaint into long-term customer loyalty. This isn’t manipulation but rather smart business and good human relations. Nobody likes problems, but customers do appreciate an organization that takes sincere and effective action to address the problems. You must, however, tell them what you’ve done to address their complaints and thank them for the opportunity to improve your product.


Craig Cochran
Craig Cochran
About the Author:
Craig Cochran is a project manager with the Center for International Standards & Quality, part of Georgia Tech's Economic Development Institute. He's an RAB-certified QMS lead auditor and the author of Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques and Formulas for Success and The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line, both available from Paton Press. CISQ can be reached at (800) 859-0968 or on the Web at www.cisq.gatech.edu.
The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line
Continual improvement is not optional. It is a condition of survival. Every organization must have systematic methods for making smart decisions, attacking problems, improving its products and services, and repelling competitors. Anything less than a systematic, disciplined approach is leaving your future in the hands of chance. This book presents a range of practical methods for driving continual improvement throughout the organization. The starting point is leadership, with a clear definition of mission, strategy, and key measures. These themes are then carried throughout the enterprise, informing everyone on the issues that matter most to survival and success. Strategic approaches for the deployment of metrics, review of organizational performance, effective problem solving, internal auditing, process orientation, and cultural development are also described in detail. Practical tools and examples are provided at every step of the way, enabling immediate implementation of the concepts. This book is more than a guide to continual improvement; it is a guide to leading and managing any organization.

Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques and Formulas for Success
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Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques and Formulas for Success
Customer satisfaction is the single most important issue affecting organizational survival. Despite this fact, most companies have no clue what their customers really think. They operate in a state of ignorant bliss, believing that if their customers were anything less than 100-percent satisfied they'd hear about it. Then they are shocked when their customer base erodes and their existence is threatened. The key to competitive advantage is proactively gauging customer perceptions and aggressively acting on the findings. The techniques for doing this don't have to be difficult, they just have to be timely and effective. This book explores a range of practical techniques for probing your customers' true level of satisfaction. Tools and specific instructions for use are described in detail, enabling the organization to get started immediately. The tools range from very basic to highly sophisticated, providing a path for organizations to follow as they progressively become more familiar with the unique drivers of customer satisfaction. This is the perfect reference for organizations that want to continually improve and outpace their competition.






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