Tips for dealing with service complaints

Complaints are a natural part of running a business. Whether you're selling products or services, you'll inevitably receive at least one customer complaint (and probably many many more). At Service Central we take the attitude that service complaints are an opportunity to improve your business - they highlight areas of communication improvement potential, areas of operational or skill improvement potential, and many more. More and more customers are evaluating businesses not on a 100% perfect track record but a track record that shows when there are problems the company is dedicated to resolving issues proactively*.

So what do you do when you receive a service or product complaint?

No matter which channel you receive the complaint through (email, telephone, online) it might feel confrontational and uncomfortable. In my experience, owning my own business means that I take service complaints a bit more personally than I would if I were just working for someone else.But over the years I've learned that no business is perfect, that service complaints are never going to go away and that turning them into positive learning or improvement 'triggers' is a far more productive way to deal with them than getting emotional.

Prioritise dealing with service complaints speedily over all other tasks, because the longer you leave a complaint to 'fester' the nastier it's going to get - your customer will get angrier and you will let it prey on your mind and build up into a far more challenging issue than the complaint was originally.

So my first piece of advice is to Remain Calm and Rational. Easier said than done, but don't react emotionally - if you are in danger of picking up the phone and telling the customer where to get off, go outside and walk it off. Service Central has intervened in many a stand-off between customers and our registered businesses, and we know how hard it is to talk a customer down once the business has reacted badly initially.

Next is to Listen Actively. That sounds a little 'touchy feely' but what it really means is that you need to listen to their concerns and at the same time let the customer know that you are listening. Asking questions (without interrupting), using listening noises (uh huh, go on, etc) and if you're dealing with this complaint face-to-face, making eye contact is key.

Tips for receiving customer complaints

  • Never argue back
  • Listen more than talk
  • Show that you care
  • Be patient - or at least pretend to be patient well
  • Take notes (nothing makes a customer more angry than having to repeat themselves)
  • Ensure that if you can't offer an immediate solution, you give the customer a specific time frame when they can expect a solution

Once you've listened to your customer's complaint, it's time to Problem Solve. But problem solving can't always happen on the 'fly' so you also need to be able to extricate yourself from the complaint process (ie listening to the customer) so that you can resolve the issue and get back to the customer with the solution. Ensuring you have the skills to be able to pacify the customer and 'escape' to problem solve is not only important for making sure that your customer isn't getting angrier while you problem solve but also gives you the confidence to take a complaint from a customer and know that you're in control of the situation.

How to 'escape' a confrontational complaint

  • Let the customer know that you have heard and understood their complaint - you can paraphrase their story back to them, or simply state authoritatively that you understand.
  • Establish the best way to communicate with the customer once you have feedback
  • Provide a definite time the customer can expect feedback (that is a reasonable time)
  • If possible, give the customer some insight into the steps that you'll be taking to resolve their issue. Will you be speaking to the manufacturer? Will you be organising time to rectify poor quality works? Will you be discussing the problem internally with more suitable people?

Key steps to problem solving

Identify the root cause of the complaint. The fact is that complaints usually arise when expectations are not met - and the root cause of this can be a few different things.

  • The customer's expectation is unreasonable because your company didn't communicate well enough in advance about what the customer's expectations should be
  • The customer's expectation is reasonable but your company failed to deliver
  • The customer's expectation is unreasonable

In all of these root causes, it's up to your business to fix what's caused the customer's complaint. Even if the customer's expectation is unreasonable, better communication up front and throughout the service delivery can diminish the likelihood of these complaints.

Identifying the root cause of the problem is the first step of problem solving because without understanding the cause of the problem you can't fix it.

Once you understand the root cause of the complaint, you're ready to give the customer a solution. The solution will be different on a case by case basis but here are some ideas for solutions:

Ideas for solutions

  • Fix the problem. Sounds simple, but is always the most effective. Speedy resolution is key, but if it's not possible to move mountains to fix the problem, let the customer know you're doing everything you can and again, make a definite promise as to when the problem will be fixed. Highlighting any warranties or guarantees that you offer can also give the customer peace of mind.
  • Offer compensation. You can compensate customers in various ways - by reducing their bill or giving them service or products for free, gifts, even giving them leftover materials you would usually store for future jobs.
  • Ask the customer what they want. A customer often has a solution in their minds but (somewhat perversely) want you to propose it - asking them directly what you can do to make the service failure good will give you a great starting point to work out a solution from.
  • Apologise. Not always a solution but customers respond very well to an apology and acknowledgement of failing - especially when it comes with an understanding of the problem and a way to prevent it from happening again in future. Even if there's NOTHING you can do except apologise, a customer gets satisfaction knowing that their complaint resulted in a positive outcome - even if it's only a positive outcome for the next customer who comes along.

The last step is to Review. I talk about the importance of 'review' in my 4 key steps to daily success, but service complaints should be a trigger to focus your review. Once you've fixed the problem you should review the situation to see whether it could happen again. It's also a fantastic customer service step to contact the complaining customer to a few days or even weeks after the problem to ensure that they are happy with the solution implemented. Giving the customer feedback on your review is also valuable, as your customer gets an opportunity to confirm in their heads that their complaint was taken seriously AND giving your business an opportunity to verbalise the review.

*This is part of the reason why you get a 'right of reply' to any comments placed online about your business. Displaying your effective problem solving skills online is often more valuable to your business's reputation than simply a string of glowing recommendations.
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  • On arriving home today Gladesville Plumbing Services were working on my neighbour's blocked drain. Walking in i noticed that the trampoline had been shoved against the gas inlet to our house. When I approached one of the worknen advised that my gas line was leaking and had been when they arrived at the job. I asked why they were operating machinery right near a gas leak. They responded by calling to my neighbour. I went to the street and turned off the main gas tap. My neighbour came out and when i asked he said there was no smell of gas leak when they started the job. when i asked details about who they were and their company details they refused to answer. When I took photos of their vehicle details they became aggressive. From the details I obtained from the photo i called 98075771 (Gladesville Plumbing) and asked if the manager could call me. No call was returned. After several attempts and only when I called with a blocked caller ID was I able to speak to the proprietor/manager. He responded by saying that they had not caused the gas leak. As we now have no gas supply I will be taking further action. As this company are also gas fitters it may be to their advantage if they simply fixed the broken pipe. They should at least offer to repair the damage they caused.

    over a year ago by Bill Glenn
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