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Sound the Alarm!
Ensure Customer Satisfaction by responding to complaints like you would an emergency.
By Craig Cochran

It's odd to think of complaints as customer satisfaction tools. After all, they indicate the polar opposite of customer satisfaction, don't they? But that's exactly the point: An effective complaint system is your customer satisfaction warning signal. Imagine a big red light mounted on the wall of your conference room. When a customer complains, the light blinks a glaring shade of crimson as a deafening buzzer blares. This is how your complaint system should function.

Complaints communicate customer perceptions, and perceptions compose the largest determinant of customer satisfaction. Unfortunately, however, complaint systems are completely reactive: You're not reaching out to your customer--you're relying on the customer to reach out to you. This is a risky proposition. Many customers simply aren't going to take the time to lodge a complaint. They may believe their time is too valuable, might not have confidence in your ability to solve the problem, have decided to take their business elsewhere or have a hundred other reasons not to complain. For every complaint your organization receives, there may be four or five others you'll never know about.

Because of its reactive nature, a complaint system should be used in combination with one or two proactive tools. These extend an organization's tentacles deep into the environment, while the complaint system acts as the last line of defense. If the proactive systems are effective, you'll hear about many issues long before they escalate to a complaint. But the complaint system will still exist--a monolith guarding the entrance to your customer satisfaction realm.

Point of contact

An effective complaint system must be easily accessible to your customers. A single toll-free phone number is typically the best mode of contact, even if your organization is a large multi-facility company. Don't confuse your customers with instructions such as: "If you're calling about our outdoor recreation products, dial the Chuckamucka facility. If you're calling about our watercraft products, dial the Simpleville facility…"

Provide one phone number for complaints, and make sure it's posted prominently in multiple places (e.g., the user's manual, the assembly guide, the packing list, the exterior box, the invoice or the thank you note). Make it clear to even the most casual observers how to call if they have a problem. Don't fret that you're treating your customers like children. They want to be treated like children, at least in terms of getting in touch with you easily.

Customers stand a significant chance of becoming irritated when they call to complain. Don't put them on hold or send them into voice mail. They'll only become more irritated, and this will hamper their ability to communicate the details of their problems. Establish whatever staffing or infrastructure is necessary so that customers can speak to a real person. It's a good investment.

Another communication faux pas is transferring a customer from one telephone extension to another. The first point of contact should be adequately trained and have the necessary tools for soliciting and recording the complaint's details. If the employee isn't able to carry out the task, take whatever action is necessary so that it can be carried out. Practicing complaint calls raises an employee's confidence and facilitates his or her ability to deal with the customer.

Although other communication media such as faxes, e-mails or Web forms can function as first points of contact for complaints, voice contact is still the best. Customers with complaints want to talk to someone, and fast. Speaking directly with a human provides assurance that the problem will be solved and everything will turn out OK.


Empathy is an important part of dealing with customers who have complaints. What exactly does empathy mean? Simply that the person talking to the customer understands the situation from the customer's point of view. He or she understands why the customer might be upset, is able to share some of the same feelings and lets the customer know that he or she would probably feel the same way.

Is it appropriate to express regret because of the problem? Sure. The customer has experienced something unpleasant, and it only makes sense to say you're sorry about it. Saying, "I regret you had this problem" isn't a confession of guilt. You're merely saying what one friend or business partner would say to another when something goes wrong. However, the organization's representative should stay away from any talk about guilt or fault-finding.

Empathy allows the customer to feel that he or she isn't alone in the situation. The customer has an ally of sorts, an advocate. Creating this feeling in the customer is critical to defusing any anger or ill feelings the customer may possess. Empathy is also the first step toward turning the negative experience of the complaint into a positive one and ultimately rebuilding the customer satisfaction that might have been lost.

Obviously, the more upset and emotional a customer is, the more empathy will need to be applied to the situation. Everybody's communication style is different, but the essential message that most customers must hear is this:

I can certainly understand how you feel about this situation.
We regret that you were inconvenienced.
We'll investigate this problem as quickly as possible and let you know what we learn.

Getting the details

In addition to expressing empathy, the person receiving the complaint must gather the details. Exactly what went wrong? Allow the customer to provide a general description, then begin to sharpen the particulars. Typical information includes the following details:

What was the exact nature of the problem? Generalities won't cut it. The problem statement must provide enough detail and depth to facilitate investigation.
When did the problem occur? The date is certainly necessary, as might also be the time.
Where did the problem occur? The state, city, plant, retail outlet, department, production line and machine all might be important.
Who were involved in the situation? What roles did they play?
What product was involved? What were the part or style numbers?
Were there any specific batch numbers, serial numbers or other identifiers that provide traceability?
Was the problem isolated or generalized across all products?

Consistently gathering this breadth of information is difficult without a structured form. Most organizations custom-design complaint forms based on their individual needs. Decide exactly what information you need to investigate customer complaints and take effective action; then design your form around these needs. Certain sections of the complaint form are almost universal, including:

The person to whom the complaint is assigned
The response due date
The root cause
The action taken
A verification of action taken
A closure signature and date

Also make sure to include proof of follow-up communication with the customer as one of the requirements of the form, if that's something your organization elects to do (it's a very good idea).

Project management

Each complaint should be assigned to a project manager whose job it is to assemble the necessary resources and ensure that all phases of the problem-solving process are carried out. This individual should have the project management skills to ensure that the correct people are involved and that they have the proper tools to address the problem. The project manager should also have the authority to remove barriers and motivate action. The space on the complaint report labeled "assigned to" is usually where this manager is designated.

This might sound a little overblown to some people. After all, we're just talking about a customer complaint, right? Yes, but a customer complaint can be a very complicated affair. Consider all the steps that constitute a response to a typical customer complaint:

Clearly defining the problem
Identifying the root cause
Proposing a range of acceptable corrective action
Choosing the action
Implementing the action
Following up to ensure the action was effective
Reporting the action and results back to the customer
Updating procedures and other documentation as necessary to reflect changed methods

More steps could be added, depending on the nature of the complaint; complex projects require a project manager. Think about the effective and ineffective corrective actions you've been a party to. One of the keys to the effective action most likely was assigning someone responsible for driving the project through to completion, i.e., a project manager.

Effective project management of customer complaints includes at least three distinctive hallmarks:

Clear assignment of ownership for each complaint.
A defined problem-solving method. This is a logical step-by-step process for addressing the problem in a lasting way. The eight steps previously outlined constitute a problem-solving method.
Involvement of a wide range of personnel. It goes without saying that managers don't have all the answers. Organizations must use all their available creativity and intellect when customers complain. Executives, managers, supervisors, operators, trainers, technicians, administrators and troublemakers could all be drawn into the problem-solving process.

Like a fire alarm, the best complaint systems swing the entire organization into action. The more people involved in the complaint investigation, action and follow-up, the more likely it is the organization will learn from the experience and not repeat the same mistakes. Team-based problem solving is a particularly effective tool for getting personnel involved. This doesn't necessarily mean decision making by committee, which is usually a disaster. It simply means that a wide range of people are contributing.

The overall management of the complaint system should be assigned to a complaint administrator. This person has a number of important responsibilities:

Supervising the input of information into the complaint database
Routing the complaint form to the appropriate project manager
Ensuring that fields in the complaint database are updated as investigation and action proceed
Escalating the complaint when investigation and action aren't proceeding according to plan

Organizations have a habit of assigning the role of complaint administrator to someone with very little real authority. This is a mistake because it may be misinterpreted as an indicator of how inconsequential the customer complaint system really is. The role of complaint administrator is a big one, and its assignment shouldn't be taken lightly.

Complaint management software

Complaint management software can facilitate the tracking and analysis of complaints significantly. The software's complexity and sophistication is meaningless; the important thing is that the person managing the complaint system can determine the status of all complaints at a glance and easily convert raw data into graphics.

Many complaint management software packages can be bought off the shelf, and many of these are effective. It's often much cheaper and easier, though, for the organization to develop its own software tools. A complaint database can be developed in a matter of minutes using relational database or spreadsheet software. Complaint databases typically include fields for most of the spaces found on the complaint form. It's also a good idea to put the complaint database on a server, with read-only access granted to the organization as a whole.

Justified vs. unjustified complaints

Some organizations have decided that it's a good idea to classify complaints according to whether they are "justified." This makes logical sense, but it's the worst thing a company can do for building customer satisfaction. If I'm a customer, all my complaints are justified. Why else would I bother complaining? If you try to tell me that my complaint is "unjustified," it's only going to make me angrier than I already am.

Once the customer experiences a problem, it becomes the company's problem. Regardless of the fault of the problem, customer satisfaction has been affected, and action must be taken. Consider these scenarios:

The customer used the product incorrectly, and the performance was adversely affected; the complaint is deemed unjustified. But why did the customer use the product incorrectly? Was the application known prior to the sale? Were the instructions unclear? Is there any chance that the customer was misled, even unintentionally?
The customer says the product was damaged, but the type of damage described could only have happened at the customer location; the complaint is deemed unjustified. But should the product's packaging be improved? Should you provide guidelines for proper handling?
The customer said the shipment arrived late, but he or she selected the carrier; the complaint is deemed unjustified. But should you stipulate longer lead times when this carrier is used? Should you offer to contact the carrier on the customer's behalf? Should you assist the customer in selecting alternative carriers?
The customer said the service person was rude, but the truth is that he was provoked by one of the customer's employees; the complaint is deemed unjustified. But should you provide your personnel training in dealing with difficult people? Should you coach your employees in conflict resolution?

In each of these cases, an argument could be made that the problem was the customer's fault. Taking this position, though, does nothing to enhance customer satisfaction, nor does it further the organization's long-term objectives. Savvy organizations will look for ways to error-proof their products with customers.

Of course, some problems are truly the customer's fault. When these situations occur, the organization might not be obligated to replace the product, provide credits or refunds, or accept returns. In all cases, however, customers must be treated in a diplomatic, cordial manner.

Reporting back to your customer

Humans are naturally curious. If you give someone feedback, it's difficult to refrain from wondering what the person does with it. This is especially the case with negative feedback based on a purchased product. Customers want to know what action has been taken. After all, the customers had a negative experience related to something they spent their hard-earned money on. They even took the time to tell the organization about it. Now they're curious. What are you going to do about it?

If your organization is interested in turning the negative experience into a positive one, someone must take the time to report back to the customer. The communication should include three key elements:

The results of the investigation into the problem
The action taken
A statement of thanks for reporting the problem

Reporting action back to the customer closes the loop on the issue. It also lets the customer know that you take his or her feedback seriously and are committed to making improvements. In some cases, it can determine whether your organization remains a supplier to this customer.

Implementation procedures

The following steps represent implementation guidelines for an effective complaint system:

Determine what information is needed in order to investigate and take action on customer complaints. Build your complaint form around this information.
Establish contact methods for customer complaints. Remember that voice contact is preferred by most customers. Test the contact method in various situations to ensure it works.
Develop a written procedure for how complaints will be handled. Stipulate responsibilities, authorities, protocols and problem-solving steps, as appropriate.
Appoint someone as the complaint administrator. This person will be responsible for inputting information into the complaint database and routing the form for investigation and action.
Educate the customer on how to contact the organization in the event of a complaint.
Train all employees in their roles within the customer complaint system.
When a complaint occurs, use structured problem-solving techniques to address them in a systematic manner (Refer to the article, "Six Fundamentals of Effective Problem Solving."

Communication about complaints

Complaint information should be one of the most widely disseminated topics in an organization. Trend data should be posted on every departmental bulletin board, along with the details of relevant complaints involving that department. Complaints, their root causes and eventual corrective action must be made topics of any regular communication that takes place throughout the organization.

Top management should be the most knowledgeable about complaints. Business review meetings should include a discussion of complaints as one of the primary agenda topics. Top management should aggressively review progress on determining root causes and taking effective action. When this happens, the effectiveness of the overall complaint system increases significantly and customer satisfaction stands a chance of being salvaged.

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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