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Handling customer complaints with grace

I remember that family holiday we took in Queensland, where we decided to do little more than to wander, like a bunch of castaways, in whatever direction the winds took us. One day, those winds took us to the local aquarium. It was still early, and their external signage said they opened at 9, so we popped across the road for coffees and hot chocolates, then back to join the queue of early birds. Nine o’clock came, and the staff appeared, opening doors, and setting up bollards. We were getting more excited by the moment.

Shortly after the initial hustle and bustle, a staff member came down the line asking for tickets. We looked blankly back at her. We had no idea we had to pre-book. The signage we’d seen earlier lacked two crucial words: “Bookings only”. Needless to say, we were crestfallen. But that feeling soon turned into anger when the staff member we were talking to reacted at first with indifference, then with belligerence. She had all the customer service skills of a sergeant major bawling out new recruits.

Missing our chance to visit the venue was bearable, but it was this poor customer experience that really soured the whole holiday memory, and our recounting of it to family and friends.

Complaints are an opportunity, not a threat

The aquarium had likely invested a great deal in its infrastructure and operations, its marketing and advertising. Despite all that, our entire customer experience was left in the hands of a single staff member, and their poor attitude.

In other articles we’ve written about customer experience, we’ve discussed different technologies, systems, and practices to help you deliver exceptional customer experiences. But one of the most effective – even satisfying – ways to provide this, can be how you and your staff handle customer complaints.

“It’s so valuable to understand the connection between complaints management, customer experience excellence and organisation performance,” says ERP and Supply Chain solutions company, Aptean, in a recent paper about managing complaints as part of an effective customer experience strategy.

Complaints can be an opportunity to get a deeper understanding of your customers’ true pain points, and explore new ways to resolve them. You may even find a grain of inspiration for a new practice or service your team or your company can introduce.

Remember too, that for every person who complains (i.e. takes the time to reach out to tell you about their problem, and seek your help), there could be scores more of your customers who feel the same way, but just quietly drift away, never to return. Aptean cited a Microsoft study claiming 56% of people stopped dealing with a business because of a poor customer experience.

What are your customers really telling you?

Train your customer service staff to see past the anger and other negative feelings, and actively listen to what the customer is saying – overtly, as well as the sub-text. Many people simply want to be acknowledged and understood. Handled well, a complaint can turn a disgruntled customer into yet another raving fan – even if there’s nothing more you can do right now to help them.

This being said, it’s important your staff feel safe at work, and respected in turn as they try to find a resolution. Make sure you have systems and processes in place to support your staff’s dealings with angry customers (see how to manage an angry customer for more insights into this).

In Aptean’s paper, how organisations handled complaints ranked in the Top 5 of things customers cared most about in their dealings with a company. Some other statistics they cited were:

  • 64% of customers had to chase for an update on their issue or complaint
  • 62% said they weren’t happy with the explanation they were given as the outcome of their complaint (I related to this after my experience)
  • 26% of customers were satisfied with the complaint experience.

They’re not exactly the kind of results to write home about (or to the Board for that matter). And each of these are part of the customer experience. How do you think your own figures would stack up? Perhaps it’s time to check in with your customers and do some research of your own. Use your results to inform or enhance your existing strategy.

Interestingly, Aptean cited that 96% of companies believed complainants could be turned into advocates, and that 35% of complainants told other people about a positive complaint experience, leaving plenty of scope for growth.

So it would seem the opportunity is clear – but whether organisations act on it, and how, will play a big part in how successful they are in the customer experience and brand loyalty stakes.

Solutions for your solutions

Handling customer complaints effectively requires empathy, training and the right processes.  Ensuring your teams use efficient, intuitive technology to manage communications is essential, so they can focus all their attention on helping your customers and not on the technology they use to interact with them.

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