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Make It Easy For Customers To Complain
By Steven Howard, Howard Marketing Services

The first component of your complaint management strategy is that you should make it easy for customers to complain.

Complaints will happen because mistakes will happen, and customers who complain are customers who care.

Therefore, knowing that you are going to get complaints and knowing that such complaints are good for you, it makes sense to have a complaint management strategy in place that not only focuses on resolving the various customer issues that crop up but that also systematically turns customer complaints into learning opportunities for the entire organization.

The first component of your complaint management strategy is that you should make it easy for customers to complain.

"What?" I can hear many of you saying. "Make it easier for customers to complain, so that we actually get more complaints?"

But that's exactly what your goal should be --- to dive more complaints. After all, if you don't hear about the problems your customers are having with your products, services, or staff, then how are you going to go about fixing these?

Secondly, when a customer has a complaint, and they run into hurdles and barriers trying to voice their complaint to someone, all they do is get angrier and angrier. The result is a small problem develops into a multi-faceted larger one, simply because the customer cannot find a way to channel their concerns, anger, fears, worries, questions, or complaints to your organization in a timely and convenient manner.

This is particularly true when it comes to the information posted on your web site. Few things seem to infuriate customers more these days than not being able to find the right contact details on an organization's web site for lodging a complaint, or for speaking to someone other than a call centre "service rep".

Thus, there are two key benefits from making it easy for customers to complain: 1) the customers don't get angrier and more upset from the additional frustrations of trying to contact your organization, and 2) you have more opportunities to fix initial, small problems before they evolve into larger and harder to resolve ones.

Part of your complaint management strategy needs to emphasise to all employees, especially the first tier and second tier staff who routinely have to deal with 90% of customer complaints, that service recovery starts with how you react to complaints.

Unfortunately, for too many organizations the initial reaction to a customer complaint is either defensive (trying to push the blame back onto the customer) or process driven (having a focus on a speedy resolution so that the front-line service staff can rapidly move onto the next customer complaint).

This approach often has unintended negative consequences, as customers end up feeling that they have been handled in a non-personalised fashion or have been quickly served so that another customer's situation can take priority. This is not to say that speed and prompt resolutions are not appreciated; however it is important to understand that the manner in which swift results are delivered can be perceived as dehumanising and robotic.

A good example of this is when an organization's e-mail auto responder system sends out the highly depersonalising "thank you for your enquiry, we will get back to you promptly" message when an e-mail of complaint is sent via the organization's web site. Please note: an e-mail (or letter) of complaint is not an enquiry. It is an attempt to get a humanised and customised resolution to a situation that your customer finds unpalatable. It should not be responded to in the same manner as an e-mail asking a general product or service question.

Additionally, in the most unfortunate situations, another unintended negative consequence of the focus on speed is that the customer actually walks away feeling unheard and that his or her true, underlining complaint was not surfaced, ignored, overlooked, or not fully understood. The result is that customers feel it is difficult to voice their complaints to the organization, and may end up deciding that it is far easier to take their business elsewhere than to continue dealing with an organization that fails to listen and comprehend.

It is for this reason that I advocate changing "customer service" staff into "customer satisfaction staff," who are then measured on their abilities to deliver complete satisfaction to customers, rather than by quantitative indicators such as the number of calls handled, the number of customers served, and the average time per service transaction. This is not a matter of semantics, but of a philosophical approach of being fully customer focused and pro-active in the area of customer satisfaction, rather than being reactive and process driven in determining customer service standards.

One interesting thing I have noticed is that customers are more acute listeners and observers when they are angry and that they notice every little detail about how they are being treated and what steps the organization is taking to settle the dispute. As a result, each and every thing done by someone representing the organization, including outsourced contract staff such as those in call centres, is noted and mentally recorded by upset customers. This is especially true for any attempts to forestall the customer from complaining or to thwart their desires to be fully heard and understood.

Customers willingly play back these details to the next level of management, or to anyone else who will listen - including your other customers and prospects - at a moment's notice. This not only lengthens the time it takes to eventually solve the original customer complaint, but it also means the dissatisfactions incurred by the customer while engaged in the settlement process must now also be dealt with. This leads to additional costs to the organization, in terms of both staff hours and the eventual compensation to the customer, as well as an unsatisfying feeling all around for customer, staff, and management.

All this could be alleviated, of course, if you simply made it easier for customers to complain in the first place.

One of my personal marketing cornerstones is that preventing customer complaints is better than resolving them. Such prevention, however, must come through quality products, services, procedures, processes, policies, and staff. This does not imply that you should prevent customer complaints from being fully voiced and understood.

When something goes wrong, it is best to hear about it. Only the problems your organization hears and knows about are fixable.

Handling customer complaints properly impacts all current and future customers - and starts with processes, procedures, and systems that make it easy for such complaints to be communicated to your organization.

So, make it easy and convenient for your customers to complain. You'll be glad you did. For the benefits will be for you and the organization to reap.

Steven Howard is Asia's leading marketing consultant and positioning specialist, with over 22 years experience. The author of two books and numerous articles, you may reach him at or

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