Complaints and customer feedback are part of any business. While they are more common in some sectors, no business can guarantee never receiving a complaint. Handling grievances and complaints in a timely and effective manner can have a significant business impact, with speedy resolution and redress increasing customer loyalty and peace of mind. A problem resolved to a customer’s satisfaction can be excellent for a business’ reputation. Research shows that customers who feel that their complaints have been listened to, taken on board and handled well, become more loyal than if they had not had cause to complain in the first place. Since the cost of gaining a new customer is estimated to be at least five times higher than maintaining an existing, this can have a significant impact on the bottom line.
The dialogue within a complaints process can provide an opportunity for constructive ideas about improving products, adapting marketing practices, upgrading services, or modifying promotional material and product information. While complaints can be challenging, they should never be dismissed out of hand. ‘Picky’ customers may be articulating something that many more customers subconsciously pick up on that is harming their view of the company. Addressing this complaint could improve the business’ reputation and quality of service. Even if a complaint doesn’t lead to a change in service or product, it may affect other areas of the business, such as marketing strategy.
Culture can play a big role in how effectively complaints are handled. Ideally, staff should be receptive to complaints and use the information they get from them to improve products and services. In reality, this is not always easy, and companies should be aware of this. Staff need to be supported to deal with complaints, particularly when customers behave unreasonably. Some customers, even those with legitimate complaints, can act aggressively. Training on how best to handle complaints can address many of these difficulties when provided to both staff who are the first port of call and staff who are the nominated person to deal with complaints. This means that staff aren’t left unsure what to do and that customers can get access to an adequate response. Whilst dealing with customer complaints with respect is necessary, staff can face emotionally charged situations or even abuse in person or online, and businesses need to support staff through this.
In dealing with complaints, clear lines of responsibility and authority help solve consumer problems quickly and effectively. Any process requires objectivity and impartiality while confidentiality may be necessary as a safeguard to ensure fairness. Employees whose primary responsibility is sales or service, for example, may not be able to be objective if they feel their personal performance is being criticised. So an organisational culture, a philosophy of respect for the customer and a willingness to accept criticism, can be established from the very top to address this.
Consumers are generally most interested in concrete solutions to their problems by obtaining delivery, repair, replacement or refund for a product or service they have purchased, rather than in asserting their legal rights. A complaints process can be multi-stage, but the key thing is that customers are kept well-informed throughout the process, and receive feedback, regardless of whether or not their complaint is upheld. Effective in-house complaints mechanisms listen to complainants and take complaints seriously, regardless of whether or not they deem the complaint reasonable. Staff are trained to know what to do in cases of complaints, so that they can be handled in a courteous, fair and timely manner. Further they anticipate the reasons behind the complaint, and take into account the expectations and needs of the customer.
Staff can keep the complainant informed, which begins by acknowledging when a complaint has been received in writing. A good complaints procedure ensures that complainants are made aware of the expected timeline of actions and resolution, provided with options of what to do next, and are informed of the implications of these. Assurances should be made to customers that they won’t be charged for complaining, and the service they receive in the future won’t be adversely affected. For ease of access, it can be helpful if the standard complaints procedure is in the public domain and the process is straightforward and easily accessible. Finally, if delays do occur, customers are informed of what’s going on, and when they can expect to hear back.
Thorough investigations should be carried out to determine all the facts, before a judgement is reached. Once this is done, this should be explained clearly and fully to the customer, regardless of whether or not it is in their favour. If the company does find it has failed to provide adequate service or a satisfactory product to that customer, redress should be proportional to the harm caused to the customer. If customers don’t agree with the findings of the complaints procedure, typically they have the option of taking the case to the ombudsman.
A well managed complaints procedure can lead to insightful suggestions for improvement. Analysing complaints data means that complaints are not just an exercise in positive customer relations, but also can inform a business of areas that are ripe for improvement. Action can then be taken in these areas, to not only prevent future complaints, but to provide more effective and efficient service, and better products in the future. Complaints are an opportunity for a business, so long as they are handled carefully with respect for the staff and customers involved.