Complaint Handling Management

By reviewing our helpdesk and some issues shown in many discussions, I try to take these issues into our complaint handling business process. We all see that we often make our customer disapoint, not only our public customer, but also our internal customer.  Each business unit must have a customer or more… or we can mention them as our users. I have seen many incidents shown that our behaviour as members of IT Department are resistant to user complaints or critics that sometimes its an invective compalints. 


Despite the headline, complaints management is serious business. Organizations spend huge budgets on compensation, without really learning why their customers have cause to complain, or, more importantly, how their frontline teams are best equipped for this most influential of loyalty effecting contacts.

Back in 1999 the legendary US business guru Fred Reichheld exclaimed “It is not how satisfied you keep your customers, it’s how many satisfied customers you keep.”

Never a truer word has ever been said about the world of complaints and complaints handling. Every year research from a variety of sources, including our very own Institute of Customer Service, reminds us that if we don’t equip our customer contact staff with the basic skills in effective complaint handling, we leave ourselves open to those nomadic customers who look for the tiniest of upsets to defect to the competition. A couple of years ago I was asked to lead a project for a High Street name, to benchmark their Customer Relations (complaints) function.

Taking it upon myself to get a foot in the door of many other brand name complaint handling functions my report concluded, months later, with a number of (to me) great disappointments:

  • Complaints functions are still seen as cost centers (and not the business development potential they should be).
  • Most players use the same, or similar, software management solutions (that, in my mind, de-humanize the emotions behind the original customer concern).
  • This combination leads to a bland, boring, repetitive approach (to the very occasions that cry out for an individual, empathetic handling to drive a truly influential complaints memory.

Ask me how I advise my own clients in this area and you used to find many of those same tried and tested guidelines.

Where the principles of Service Memory Management really make a difference is when these accepted rules are turned on their heads, looked at from the disgruntled customers perspective and peppered with a liberal sprinkling of ‘serious fun’.

You will recognize the basis of most of these. Indeed they probably feature in the majority of the popular ‘How to’ complaint handling books and journals. may even be present in your own in-house systems today.

The difference comes in real, personal application. With the benefit of adding the service memory principles, my 10 customer-facing recommendations now look like this and are as at home in the corner shop as they are in multiple touch point functions.

  1. Stay calm relaxed and say Sorry quickly. (Many customers expect a ‘fight’. Surprise them with your personal apology and your passive demeanor to diffuse the situation .Consider other proven calming tricks like using a lavender oil plug-in freshener or slightly dimmed lighting).
  2. Really Listen and demonstrate initial understanding, taking notes so the customer can see (or hear) you doing it. (An instant first impression of care).
  3. Empathize don’t sympathize (Real understanding is what’s needed, not a quick ‘Sorry about that.’).
  4. Check understanding early, summarize regularly and clarify your own thoughts (to provide further evidence of interest).
  5. Be careful with your resolution promises. Do what you say you’ll do – but quicker (Research dictates the old adage ‘under promise, over deliver’ is more valued in complaint situations).
  6. Take full responsibility for your customer’s problem. (You need to be trusted. Blaming someone else is easy but out of the question).
  7. Wherever possible, tell your customer that YOU will research and resolve their problem, if you can’t resolve it there and then. (If your customer does leave you to resolve matters they need to know they are getting a personal service from you).
  8. If compensation is called for, be creative. (Cash compensation runs the risk of putting your own value on the relationship you enjoy. Find out some personal details about your customer and send a thoughtful gift. Have fun trying to find the perfect gift to represent your apology and make your customer smile).
  9. Always follow up. (The norm tends to be a standard letter or ‘How was it for you?’ call. What is really required is a contact of genuine interest that also tells the customer what impact their complaint has had on the organization i.e. a process change. Achieve that and just wait for the plaudits).
  10. Learn from your mistakes by engaging everyone regularly(Don’t just say to your team ‘What went wrong today? Instead ask ‘How did we make our customers feel? Then excite your customers by asking them to an Advocates Forum. Surprise them all by publicly displaying the results).

As with all breakthrough strategies, perseverance, monitored adherence and due diligence to detail are the guidelines for success.

At the same time, allowing your teams the latitude to enjoy experimenting with the principles is what is currently paying dividends. Enjoy and transform.

By British consultant Colin Marvell, founder of The Customer Experience Co.


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