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Serve Up Satisfaction: 10 Tips For Effectively Handling Customer Complaints

By Ron Kaufman, author of “Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You MeetSpirit Airlines recently flew into a big public relations disaster. Sticking to a no-refunds policy, the airline refused to refund the airfare of a passenger who had to cancel his trip after finding out he has terminal cancer. The incident unearthed earlier cases of Spirit’s difficulty handling customer complaints. A couple of years ago, CEO Ben Baldanza hit “Reply All” on an email from two customers who had missed a concert due to a delayed flight. Essentially, he told his employees and (accidentally) the customers themselves that Spirit Airlines didn’t owe the customers anything and the customers would be back the next time they wanted low airfare. These examples are proof of just how tricky it can be to properly navigate customer complaints. Spirit Airlines has a policy and they’re sticking to it. That seems to be how the company chooses to handle customer complaints. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, that approach might not be what’s best for business. When any company receives a complaint, it essentially has two choices. One, treat the complaining customer like he’s a pain in the neck. Or two, appreciate each complaining customer and use the complaint as an opportunity to improve. One complaining customer actually represents many other customers who had the same problem, but didn’t complain. And because that’s true, you should try to uplift them every time. For every person who actually comes to complain to you, there is a quantum number who won’t come to you. They’re the ones who go off and tell somebody else, complain about you online, and take their business elsewhere. Let’s say 1 out of 100 of your customers actually comes to you with their complaint. Shouldn’t you really value that person times 100? Because they’re representing all the other people who never came to you, you should be happy — or if not happy, at least very, very appreciative — when someone actually takes the time to give you a second chance. Read on for advice on how to use customer complaints to uplift your service:

1. Thank them for their complaint.

Give positive recognition by saying, right off the bat, “Thank you for reaching out.” Show appreciation for the complaining customer’s time, effort, communication, feedback, and suggestions. Always keep in mind that the customer didn’t have to come to you at all. He could have simply taken his business to your competitor. When a customer gives you the opportunity to recover their service, be grateful.

2. Don’t be defensive.

It’s easy to get defensive when an angry customer is on the other end of the line. Customers with complaints exaggerate situations, they get confused, and yes, they may even lie about how things went down. It’s tempting, as the Spirit Airlines CEO did in his “Reply All” email, to just blow off the customer. You want to say, “No! That’s not what happened. You’re wrong!” But getting defensive will lead only to more problems. When you get defensive, you raise the temperature even higher. Think about the last time you had a disagreement with your spouse. How did it make you feel when he or she told you that you were wrong about something or completely denied that a set of events happened the way you said they happened? Probably not very happy. When a customer complains, they’re doing so because they feel wronged in some way. You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying. But you do have to agree to hear them out. That’s how you keep the conversation moving in a positive direction.

3. Acknowledge what’s important to them.

Service providers must find a complaining customer’s value dimension (or what’s important to them). Even if you think the customer’s complaint is unfair, there is something they value that your company didn’t deliver on. Embrace that value. What the customer wants is to feel right. When you agree with their value dimension, you’re telling them they are right to value this specific thing. For example, if a customer says your service was slow, then that customer values speed. You might say, ‘Absolutely, you deserve quick, efficient service.’ Or if a customer says your staff was rude, you might say, ‘We do agree that you should be treated with courtesy and respect every time you come to our store.’ In Spirit Airlines’ case, the man was complaining about their no-refund policy. The company might have responded by saying, ‘We understand that flexibility in appropriate circumstances is the right thing to do.’ When you validate what a customer values, you aren’t agreeing with them that your service is slow or that your staff is rude. You’re saying, ‘We agree with you on what you find important and what you value. And we want to deliver in those areas.’

4. Use judo, not boxing.

In boxing, you go right after your opponent, trying to punch him to the ground. In judo, you work with someone else’s motions to create a desired result. You use another person’s speed and energy to spin him around and then end up together on the same side. When you show a customer you understand what they value, you’re catching them off guard with your own movement. They don’t expect you to tell them that they’re right. Suddenly, just as you might do in judo, you’ve avoided a defensive confrontation and you can spin them. In judo, you’d spin them to the ground. In customer service, you use the opportunity to show the customer that you’re now both on the same side and you can work together.

5. Apologize once, upfront.

Every service provider knows that the customer is not always right. But the customer is always the customer. You don’t have to tell the customer you were wrong, but you should apologize for the inconvenience they’ve experienced. When you do so, you’re showing understanding and empathy for their discomfort, displeasure, or inconvenience.

6. Explain the company’s desire to improve.

When you understand what the customer values, show them things your company does that helps you perform well in that area. For example, let’s say a customer is complaining because a package was delivered a day late. You would say, “We understand that quick, on-time delivery is important to our customers.” Now the unhappy customer will probably say, “But you failed in my case! My package was a day late.” Then, you should calmly say, “Here’s what happened. On that day there was a snow storm that slowed our service. I’d like to reassure you that we are working right now to find a better solution. In fact, we’ve recently invested $1.7 million in a fleet upgrade that will allow us to better navigate inclement weather and keep our deliveries coming to you on time.” Show you are sincere about your commitment to do well in the areas the customer values. At the very least, you can say, ‘I’m going to make sure everyone in the company hears your story. We don’t want this to happen again.’ When you express the company’s desire to improve, you start on the path to rebuilding its credibility with the customer.

7. Educate your customer.

Part of hearing the customer out is answering any questions they ask about their specific situation. Provide additional, useful information. If they ask a question that you can’t answer or don’t know the answer to, tell them you’ll find out the answer and get back to them. And then actually follow through. Contact the customer with the answers they requested. And even if they might not have requested an update about their situation, get back in touch with them with one anyway. These are additional opportunities for you to say through your actions, ‘We care about you. We value your business.’

8. Contain the problem.

Let’s say a family is at a crowded theme park on a hot day. The youngest child in the group starts to have an all-out meltdown. Suddenly, a theme park staff member sweeps onto the scene and whisks the family into a special room. Inside, they find an air conditioned room with water and other beverages, an ice cream machine, a bathroom, a comfortable sitting area, etc. The only thing missing in the room is any connection to the theme park’s brand. That’s because this room is used to isolate customers from the brand until they’re all — parents and children — having a more pleasurable experience. The room is also being used to isolate the unhappy family from the families outside the room who are enjoying their day at the theme park. And finally, they’re being isolated from some park staff who may not be as well-prepared as the staff member who brought the family to the room to handle these sticky situations. That’s how you contain a problem. The Spirit Airlines situation is completely different, but they still had an opportunity to contain the problem before it became a national public relations disaster. They could have done so by having a service provider educated in uplifting service responding to the customer’s complaint. They might have said, ‘No matter what our rules or policies are, we see that your circumstance requires flexibility. We want to handle your special situation carefully. Let’s work together to figure out what’s best. But first, let me thank you for reaching out.’ Had they said this, they would have been working together with their customer to solve the problem. Instead, he didn’t feel like he was going to get help from the airline so he took his complaint elsewhere.

9. Recover.

Show the customer you care about them, even if you feel the company did everything right, by making them an offer. Companies worry that they’ll get taken advantage of if they give vouchers, discounts, or freebies as part of their service recovery, but the reality is that almost never happens. Offer the customer something and then explain that you’re doing so ‘as a gesture of goodwill’ or ‘as a token of our appreciation. Sears takes recovery seriously. The company now has a ‘blue ribbon team’ of specially educated and empowered staff to handle recoveries. Once an issue goes to them, anything they recommend is what gets done. They have full support from the top down. Sears does this because the company understands that a successfully recovered customer can become your most loyal advocate and ally.

10. Give serial complainers an out.

Some people just love to complain. These kinds of customers complain, not so that they can become satisfied, but because they are never satisfied. With serial complainers, you must limit your liability and isolate them from your brand. One leading luxury airline had a serial complainer who loved caviar. He loved it so much that on every flight he’d eat all of the caviar the flight crew had to offer and then he’d complain that they didn’t have enough. As a test, the airline even stocked extra caviar on one of his flights. He ate it all again, and complained… again. His constant complaints led the airline to send him a letter. Essentially it read, ‘Thank you for traveling with us for so many years. It appears that despite our best efforts we haven’t been able to satisfy you. Out of our concern for your happiness we’ve provided you here with the contact information for three other airlines that serve your route of travel. However, should you choose to travel with us again, and enjoy the high level of service we are able to provide, we will be delighted to welcome you on board with us again.’ With the letter, they gave the complaint-prone passenger an out. On the rare occasions when you deal with someone who complains all the time, that’s the best thing to do.   Your customers are not your enemy. It’s sometimes hard to remember that when you’re involved in a tense complaint situation. But they’re essential to your business and you really are both on the same side. Your customer wants the product or service you provide, and you want to give it to them. When you treat complaints as opportunities to build loyalty, you can create customers for life and uplift your entire company in the process.   Ron Kaufman is the author of ”Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet“. He is the world’s premiere thought leader, educator, and motivator for uplifting customer service and building service cultures in many of the world’s largest and most respected organizations, including Singapore Airlines, Nokia Siemens Networks, Citibank, Microsoft, and Xerox. He is the founder of UP! Your Service, a global service education and management consultancy firm with offices in the United States and Singapore.      

This is an article contributed to Young Upstarts and published or republished here with permission. All rights of this work belong to the authors named in the article above.

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