Managing Complaints

12 June 2000
For many businesses and managers, handling customer complaints is a tiresome hassle. Dealing with unpleasant and angry customers is certainly no fun; it can also take a toll on your people.

There are many tried-and-true methods of defusing customer situations, and each company has its own service policies for empowering employees and addressing customer complaints. So, rather than discuss how to handle a complaint, this month I would like to discuss how to design and manage an effective complaint process.

First, why have a complaint process? Isn't it easier to just deal with complaints as they arise, then move on to other work? Of course it is. But a well-designed complaint process will actually reduce your overall number of complaints. It will reduce employee turnover by improving job satisfaction. It will reduce your costs, because you will have fewer complaints to address and your improved retention will save on hiring and training. It will improve your service and increase your customer satisfaction-the key factor in building customer loyalty. And, it will make your company more profitable and a stronger competitor in the long run.

Why are customer complaints so valuable? Because they tell you: The exact issues that concern your customers; often, how to fix them; how deeply customers are concerned about the issue; that is, the depth of their intensity; how widespread the issue is (single location versus across the enterprise); and how many customers the issue bothers or affects.

To begin, consider a new mindset: Every com-plaint is an opportunity to satisfy a customer and im-prove your organization. When complaining, customers are really offering your company advice on how to better satisfy them (and potentially many others). In other words, they want to help you help them; they are telling you their expectations and where they believe that you fell short. No matter how outlandish the complaint, there is usually a grain of truth somewhere within it.

Resolve the Complaint at the Time

Of course, you should continue to address complaints as they arise. The best opportunity to satisfy dissatisfied customers is when they complain. This is your opportunity to resolve the issue, thank the customer for his business and his suggestion, and build or reinforce a positive relationship with the customer.

When customers take the time and initiative to tell you what they think and what concerns them, the least you can do is listen and acknowledge their concerns. That is, unless you want to give the impression that you really don't care.

Document and Track Complaints

Even if your employee resolves a customer's complaint 100 percent completely at the time, you should require your employees to document all complaints (and their resolution). Then you should establish a centralized role to track complaints across the organization. Why? Suppose that your best employees are able to notice a pattern in complaints when they encounter the same complaint just three times from different customers. With hundreds or thousands of employees, customers may complain to your company thousands and thousands of times before anyone observes a pattern and begins to implement a correction.

By centralizing a complaint tracking function, your organization can identify and correct issues in days. Obviously, this can help you avoid annoying thousands of your customers unnecessarily.

Categorize, Sort Complaints

Your centralized complaint tracking function should assign one or more categories to each complaint. Today's powerful databases allow you to access and sort data by any number of criteria. Thus, you could track complaints by business unit, function, process, location, shift, even employee. Complaint analysis usually pays for itself in no time. Avoid Witch Hunts

You want to receive and track all complaints, because they have value. Therefore you should strive to remember to avoid "shooting the messenger" or punishing those who report complaints. You want to encourage full compliance, not scare people into not reporting complaints. Your goal should be to capture every complaint your organization receives, whether written or verbal, resolved or not.

Analyze Complaints

How many complaints do you receive each day? Is the trend increasing or decreasing? Do you receive the same handful of complaints repeatedly, or is there a wide variety? Are your complaints centered on a few key areas or processes? Can you see the cost of these issues, particularly in terms of customer and employee satisfaction? Can you see the potential benefits of addressing a handful of key issues, as soon as possible?

Are these issues the result of poor process designs or poor information systems? Or, do they present an opportunity to improve and strengthen employee training? Are these issues the result of organizational disconnects that allow problems to fall between the cracks? Is your organization designed and aligned to actively address and resolve the root causes?

Implement Solutions

Once you have isolated and prioritized some key issues, you can begin to resolve them. Assign responsibility to an appropriate individual with the authority to drive a resolution across the organization, as necessary.

Track Success

If your solutions work as you intend, you should notice the number of similar complaints dropping off as the solution takes hold. This is a great sign, because your solution is successful. Beware of a sudden surge in other complaints, however; this may indicate that your solution has unintended consequences.

A strong complaint management function can be a strong competitive weapon. It will almost make you want to thank your customers for complaining.

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