Dealing with complaints can be drudgery, and complaining customers can be angry, stressed, and harsh. The emails, live chats, and phone calls to resolve these complaints often aren’t much fun. They can push us to our most defensive, when we inadvertently make the situation worse.
For all of those reasons I find Janelle Barlow and Claus Møller’s A Complaint Is a Gift to be a go-to resource. The book, first published in the mid-1990s with an updated second edition from 2008, remains a solid handbook for handling complaints with grace and ease.
Within their philosophy of complaints are a few important takeaways:
- Elegantly handling complaints is possible.
- People only complain because they hope something will happen.
- Only a small percentage of people take the time to complain.
- Each complaint is an opportunity to learn and improve your service.
That last point is central: each complaint is a gift someone gives you. The customer could have just stayed silent and left your company behind. But they spoke up and presented an opportunity to restore their trust, partner with them to fix the problem, and improve your process for next time.
Below I outline three principles that let you make the most of this opportunity. They’re straightforward on the surface, but I’ve found each helpful to revisit and practice. I’m just summarizing, though, and all credit goes to the authors.
The first step is to be personal and rebuild trust, and the best way to open is to thank the customer (remember, they brought you a gift). If you’re apologizing, make it genuine and say “I” instead of “we.” Apologize for what happened, not for the inconvenience. And don’t blame the customer (that’s just pouring fuel on the fire), but do offer complete explanations, ask lots of questions, and reassure them you’re invested in fixing the problem. No matter the medium, you want the customer to understand you’re personally working to understand their complaint. You’re not just going through a form or script.
As consultants the authors travel quite often and they share an example from United Airlines that drives this home. After a cascading series of problems with luggage, a United VP proactively followed up, set the script aside, and was sincere. As they relate:
Finally, Janelle wrote a letter. She got a telephone call and a letter in quick order. Then it happened again; no luggage. When Janelle arrived at the TMI office the next morning, a caller was holding for her. The voice at the other end of the line said, “We did it again, didn’t we?” Perfect. A vice president from United was calling and obviously had been alerted to the delayed-luggage report that was filed the previous night. Again, we say that so much of effective complaint handling is in the way it is done.
Make it a partnership
Don’t try to fix your customers’ problems too quickly. Give them a chance to express the emotions they feel.
Complaints often come alongside anger and frustration. To resolve them it’s important to not rush into anything as that won’t help your customer feel heard (it’s also how you can make mistakes). Instead, work to build a partnership with the customer. If things remain adversarial they’ll stay angry, and you’ll be limited in how you can help.
One of the best ways to build a partnership is to detach yourself from the situation. You want to remain invested in fixing the problem while keeping your emotional responses out of the equation; this balance helps you work with the customer. The authors outline 5 behavioral approaches and phrasing models that can help:
- Investigatory: “Let’s get to the bottom of this.”
- Advisory: “We can approach this a couple ways.”
- Listening: “Tell me what happened, I’d like to know as well.”
- Analytical: “Let’s go through things in order.”
- Reassuring: “Did I understand all of that correctly?”
The entire “When Customers Go Ballistic” chapter is an excellent set of action-oriented suggestions. There are phrasing suggestions like those above throughout. Two more of my favorites:
- Instead of “Sir, I can’t help you if you don’t…” try, “Could you help me understand more about what happened…”
- Instead of, “No, we can’t get that for you today.” try, “We can get it for you, and it shouldn’t take any more than three days.”
Focus on process, not people
Service recovery has two aspects: emotional and tangible. The emotional aspect is helping everyone feel better about the situation that created dissatisfaction. The tangible aspect is doing something to fix the situation.
Once you’ve diffused the emotional aspect of the complaint you can begin to work on the tangible side of things. Here it’s important to consider two levels of fixing the situation: How can we fix it for this customer? And how can we fix it so that this doesn’t happen again?
You want the individual customer to have their complaint resolved and you want to prevent other customers running into the same situation. The goal is not to get really good at handling complaints you could have prevented! That’s why you need to learn what first led to this problem. The cause is very likely to be on the process side and they use a phrase borrowed from an early 1990s medical paper, “Punish process, not people.” With this mindset the more complaints you hear the better.
I hope this gives you a good idea of what you can learn from A Complaint Is a Gift. There’s something in the book for every level of an organization, from a brand new customer support team member on up to the senior leadership team. Its straightforward principles are ones that I’ve found regularly worth revisiting.