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A Complaint Is a Gift

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The first edition of A Complaint Is a Gift introduced the revolutionary notion that customer complaints are not annoyances to be dodged, denied, or buried but are instead valuable pieces of feedback – in fact, they’re your best bargain in market research. Customer complaints can give businesses a wake-up call when they’re not achieving their fundamental purpose: meeting customer needs. Complaints provide a feedback mechanism that can help organizations rapidly and inexpensively strengthen products, service style, and market focus. Most importantly, complaints create a moment of truth when a customer who is deciding whether to return can be made even more loyal.

Using numerous real-life examples, A Complaint Is a Gift shows precisely how to handle complaints in a way that brings benefit to your organization and satisfaction to your customers – even when you have to say no. The second edition features two brand-new chapters on receiving and responding to complaints of the Internet; a new section on how to deal with and take advantage of complaints that are directed at your personally; and, turning the tables, a section on how you can complain constructively and effectively. And throughout, the text has been heavily revised, with a wealth of new examples, tools, and strategies.

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1: A Complaint Is a Gift Strategy

ePub

It’s not easy to listen to complaining customers all day long. The following tirade by a service representative venting on the Internet is not all that different from many we have heard in person. You can almost hear the conflict this service provider is experiencing about her job, especially when she confronts an upset customer.

Customer complaints suck. Customers complain 90 percent of the time because they have had a bad day and need someone to take it out on. I work for a wireless company and I get so many complaints that it is sickening… My job is to help the customer, but there is a limit that any employee of any company can tolerate. I am sick of customer complaints. No matter how hard I try, customers are not satisfied within the limit of what we as employees can do by company policy… but when a customer comes into an establishment with an attitude from the start, it is hard to keep a level head when they are screaming at you and accusing you of being rude.

Anonymous

Imagine that a friend comes to visit on your birthday with a lovely present in hand. The first thing you would say after greeting him or her would, most likely, be an expression of gratitude. “Thank you. Thank you for coming and thank you for the lovely present.” Your entire verbal and nonverbal language would signal your pleasure at seeing your friend and receiving the gift.

 

2: Complaints Necessary Evil or Opportunities?

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If you are a parent, you may have sternly said to your children, “I’m really angry at you because you’re better than that.” Or when punishing them, you may have said, “Believe me, this hurts me more than it does you.” Children typically don’t believe this for a second, but once they have their own children, they have a different take on the negative feedback they received as children. At times, children drive their parents crazy because they don’t do what is expected of them. Children say one thing and do another. They forget to do what they promised. They speak out of turn. And as parents, we will not tolerate this behavior if we want our children to grow up to have good lives and be people we can be proud of. Sound familiar?

Fred Wiersema, business strategist and author, makes an interesting point about losing customers, saying that organizations have to be doing some pretty stupid things to lose them: “I disagree with the broad statement that says loyalty is dead… most customers are incredibly sticky… if you lose a customer, you have really messed up. Is there something wrong with your values? Is there something wrong with the day-to-day interaction of your people and their people? What’s wrong? Because you really have to mess up something to lose a customer.”133

 

3: Capitalizing On Complaints

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Restaurant personnel, in a high-profile Hong Kong magazine column, were quoted as describing complaining diners as “moaners … whiners … demanding… explosive … rude … self-centered … power grabbers … stupid … out-right cheaters … and devious.”1 Even researchers can’t avoid calling customers names. One group divided problem diners into five categories: Bad Mannered Betty, Harold the Intimidator, Freeloading Fickle, Ignoramus Iggie, and Dictatorial Dick.2 These labels are cute, but they also reinforce negative mind-sets about consumers. A University of Florida group divided complaining customers into the meek, the aggressive, the high-roller, the rip-off, and the chronic complainers. Nowhere in these designations was there a customer who just wants something that was promised or a problem fixed.3

Actually, most people who complain are not nitpickers; in fact, they represent a “rather broad sample of the buying public.”4

It would be a wonderful world, indeed, if companies could produce services and products that always worked. According to product experts, however, a 10 to 12 percent problem rate may be the lowest that most industries can achieve.5 It is safe to conclude that problems will always be with us. So companies need to learn about service recovery—the process of making right what went wrong. In order to engage in service recovery, a company must first know that a problem occurred, and there is no way that the people within an organization are going to find all the problems themselves.55

 

4: Why Most Customers Don’t Complain

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“Why don’t you complain?” It’s a simple question with a surprising number of answers. We once heard over 150 discrete reasons from a single group of people as to why they don’t complain. When you hear this many reasons rapidly tumbling from the mouths of people, you begin to understand why so many customers walk away without saying anything.

TARP concluded that complaints are actually declining, even when serious problems are faced. This is due to what the company calls “trained hopelessness.” TARP’s John Goodman says, “The customer has been trained by the system to accept problems as a general business practice—with the prospect of no change, why bother complaining?”1 Perhaps underscoring Goodman’s statement, RightNow Technologies, in its 2007 Customer Experience Impact Report, concludes that good service is still a huge differentiator. Fifty-one percent of survey respondents said that outstanding service is what makes them return to a company; 60 percent said that it is the major reason why they recommend a company. RightNow also found that a growing number of people said they won’t go back to an organization after a bad experience: 80 percent in 2007, up from 68 percent in 2006.275

 

5: In the Mind of the Complaining Customer

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When customers have problems with products they have purchased, few will bother to complain if the products are low in price. The research group TARP found that somewhere between 1 and 5 percent will complain to management or headquarters—that is, to someone who will or can do something about the problem.1 About half the customers who are dissatisfied will just walk away and not return. What about the other 45 percent? They will complain to customer-facing staff. So, if service representatives are inclined to take care of customers and are empowered to do so, there’s a good chance that many of these customers can be retained.

For small-ticket items, only about 4 percent of disassatified customers complain to retail outlets; if they purchased a large-ticket item, about half of dissatisfied consumers will complain to customer-facing staff and between 5 and 10 percent escalate to local management or corporate offices. Having readily accessible toll-free numbers will double the number of calls to corporate offices. But TARP estimates that senior executives receive only one out of one hundred to five hundred complaints that come into headquarters.2 TARP, incidentally, has replicated its research in almost every industry and in more than twenty countries, and these figures hold across the marketplace and around the world.99

 

6: The Gift Formula

ePub

Complaining has never had a positive meaning. It comes from the Latin verb plangere, which originally meant “to hit”— metaphorically “to beat one’s breast.” Today a complaint is the utterance of pain, displeasure, or annoyance. It also is an illness or ailment, and in legal terms, it is a formal charge or accusation. In English slang, to complain is to quibble, raise a fuss, yammer, squawk, bitch, bewail, moan and groan, bellyache, carp, nag, pick at, give someone a hard time, find fault, gripe, whine, and fret.

Small wonder that no one likes to receive complaints. Yet this is the method by which customers tell us how to run our businesses and organizations! After we have worked like the dickens to deliver a service or a product that we believe in, customers have the gall to let us know our efforts do not suit their purposes or meet their needs. It’s almost as bad as someone sitting down to a dinner you prepared and wrinkling his or her nose. Are we to welcome these kinds of statements and confrontational behaviors? Yes. That is precisely the point. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan’s words, the medium is the complaint. Customers may moan and groan—seemingly unfairly—but their messages are vital information to any business.124

 

7: Creating Better Customers With Goodwill

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Janelle was invited to present a Complaint Is a Gift workshop in Budapest, Hungary, in 1999, ten years after the Republic of Hungary was formed. In the middle of the workshop, a middle-aged woman raised her hand and asked if there was some way to “teach customers to be better customers.” She added that she didn’t want them to complain so much. About half of the several-hundred audience members were in their twenties and had spent the better part of their current careers under a capitalist system. This younger group broke out laughing. Their perception was that customers get to behave the way they want to.

Janelle has often thought about that woman’s plaintive question. Her first reaction was to dismiss it as a remnant of the socialist economy, but the more she thought about it, the more she has wondered, “Indeed, why can’t we have better customers?” In the Eastern Bloc, government-run enterprises definitely had good customers. They were good or they didn’t get served and couldn’t buy anything because of the extreme shortage of goods. Shoppers, it is told, would join long lines outside stores not even knowing what was being sold. And when they could buy something, they bought as much as they could because they never knew when that particular item would again be available. But this isn’t the kind of “good customers” Janelle was thinking about.142

 

8: When Customers Go Ballistic

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No one likes to see customers scream at company representatives, but it happens. A 1976 study of consumers said 32 percent reported experiencing a serious customer service problem in the previous year. By 2003, after the establishment of huge call centers, that number had risen to 45 percent, and of those consumers more than two-thirds reported feeling “rage” about how their problems were handled.1 Not only can screaming customers leave service providers shaken, but the customers may be embarrassed by their public display of emotions; to cover their embarrassment, they may become more self-righteous. Viewers are uncomfortable, wondering if they should take a stand—and on whose side.

It is essential that service providers be trained to handle volatile situations. Faced with the threat of possible attack, our natural inclinations are either to fight or to flee. Neither of these behaviors is appropriate in a business environment (unless someone is truly threatening), but they are natural responses that we suppress. Hollywood capitalizes on this frustration with movie scenes in which the overworked, underappreciated, trampled-on employee who finally can’t take it anymore calls the customer a foul name, insists he or she is not paid enough to take the abuse, and walks right off the job. Almost all movie audiences spontaneously applaud such scenes.160

 

9: It’s All In the Words Responding to Written Complaints

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It’s easy for customers to threaten that they’ll write letters after receiving bad service. But writing is not without cost. In order to write complaint letters, customers have to gather paper, a pen, an envelope, a stamp—or a computer—and their wits. Depending on how rapidly they write, this could take somewhere between ten and thirty minutes. People who write with lots of details tell us they have on occasion spent hours composing their letters. They may have to go to a Web site and enter their comments according to the format required by the company. Both authors have complained on Web sites and have faced situations where an error message forced them to start over more than once. After you do that a couple of times, you’re feeling a little like Peanuts’ Charlie Brown waiting for the football to be pulled away—again—at the last minute by Lucy.

Contrast this with the kind of response you’d get from Mike Eskew, CEO of UPS. He says that it’s easy for any CEO to seem remote to customers. So he personally handwrites a response to each letter addressed to him. He says, “If you don’t take the time for such gestures, the company becomes a machine.”1 Imagine that!181

 

10: From a Whisper to a Global Shout

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Today we are in the unique position of having to deal with a louder, faster, and more prolific communication channel for consumers who feel they have been wronged: the Internet. John Prescott Ellis, former media columnist with the Boston Globe, wrote what has become the most compelling statement about the Internet in today’s world: “The internet changes everything it touches, and it touches almost everything.”1 It certainly touches how people complain. Any complaint posted on the Web is accessible to anyone sitting in front of a computer that is connected to the Internet. If you haven’t seen what is happening with complaints on the Web, we implore you to invest an hour of your time and get a little taste of what is there. Peter Blackshaw, CEO of Planetfeedback, says, “The Internet is one of the world’s most powerful focus groups.”2 And it’s there for you to sit in on.

The scope of the World Wide Web lets people communicate with each other in a way never before imaginable: prolifically, globally, and pretty much anonymously. A new software package on the market generates an automatic complaint letter that can be sent online or in hard copy. All a user has to do is enter his or her name and answer a few basic questions, and the program creates an angry, coherent complaint letter from an extensive database of words and phrases. Each time it is used, an entirely different letter is produced. The damage caused by talk among a few fellow commuters standing at a bus stop in no way compares to the damage that a single irate consumer can perpetuate on the Internet. In today’s world of video cameras, information highways, and instantaneous communication, it really is impossible to hide bad service. Market researchers believe that the traditional methodologies used to gather customer opinions are changing. Surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews are being replaced with chat rooms, blogs, message boards, and online forums.3 The world has definitely changed.203

 

11: When Feedback Gets Personal

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Most of us would rather not be told that our behavior is inappropriate, that we smell funny, that we got someone’s name wrong, or that we were late. In most cases, we also do not like to tell someone else such bad news—even if it’s true. Advertisers are aware of this human inclination, so when producing commercials for mouthwash products, they help buyers devise clever, indirect ways to tell offenders their breath is bad.

The alternatives to receiving personal feedback are either to be perfect, which is a little difficult, or to remain unaware of defects, limitations, or inappropriate behavior. The key to learning from personal complaints and criticism—just like customer complaints—is not to get defensive but to view them as gifts. Many years ago, Janelle had a boss with a memorable temper. He would scream at his staff—in public and at the top of his lungs. One evening he broke his foot kicking down a door in a fit of anger. Everyone cheered. “This is who I am,” he would shout. “And if you don’t like it, then just leave.” His employees did, in droves, as did his wife and children. He paid a big price for being who he was.

 

12: When You Complain, Make Sure You Are Giving a Gift

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If everyone gets into the habit of demanding quality service and quality products, we’re more likely to receive higher quality. Why should a business improve its service offerings if it gets no feedback that something is wrong? You may say, “But what if I’m just picky? Maybe it’s just my peculiar tastes” or “What right do I have to complain when they’re trying so hard?” or “I’m sure they are people, just like me, and I occasionally make mistakes.” Maybe all this is true. But that still doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give feedback to help organizations get better at serving you.

We are aware of a relatively strong movement about creating a complaint-free world led by Will Bowen, an American evangelist. His thesis is that if we all stopped moaning, the world would be a better place. He urges people to purchase one of his purple bracelets. Every time you complain about something (out loud), you switch the bracelet to your opposite wrist. The goal is to wear it for twenty-one consecutive days without having to switch it. At the time of the rewriting of this book, almost 5 million people had purchased bracelets from Bowen’s Web site. Part of Bowen’s philosophy is that complaining rarely does anything good. Perhaps that’s what needs to change. No doubt a lot of the complaining that most of us do in our personal lives really does little. But we’re talking about something different here. We’re discussing making this a better world to live in because we speak up.237

 

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