Inviting Customer Criticism

First appeared in ‘The Age’ (Australia)

I once went to a seminar where complaints were described as snowflakes. They are rare, precious and absolutely unique. You cannot buy them. They are the best feedback you will ever get. Someone has taken the time to tell you something you did not know about your business, I hope. You should cherish them. I would definitely agree with the sentiment. However, when I managed a betting office and had a six foot six inch thug with a shotgun demanding money for a bet he had put on too late I did not quite see him as a snowflake or feel like cherishing him very much.

Those in the know

But, it is absolutely true. Complaints are the best way of getting an insight into your organisation. You cannot do it – you are too close. Your staff rarely do it – they may be too close to the business, too afraid of losing their jobs or simply could not care less. The two types of people who can do it are new employees and customers. New employees are great. They can see past the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mentality – well, for a while at least they can.

In an organisation I worked for, in my computer programmer days, a new trainee asked why we kept all the computer reports each day, then moved them the next day, stored them for a week then threw them away. “Well, we could use them if there were a problem.” came the reply.

“So when was the last time you had a problem?”

“Last week.”

“And did you use them?”

“Of course not. You’d never find anything. We have all the information on screen. It’s so much easier to find…Oh I see…”

It was estimated that when we stopped producing these reports it saved over £20,000 a year in paper, workload and storage.

Fix the problem

Back to customers and complaints. As an organisation with people there will be mistakes. It is only human. The real strategic management skill here is not to pretend they do not happen, but ensure there is a process for dealing with them. Even more than this ensure people are not afraid to own up to mistakes, accept responsibility, put it right and move on. To do that however you need to have a ‘no blame culture’, where mistakes are accepted and learnt from. When dealing with complaints the procedures you implement should focus on ‘speed of recovery’. Mistakes or customer complaints must be dealt with quickly, efficiently and learnt from. The vast majority of complainants just want things to be right. They are not complaining for fun.

Trust your staff

At Ritz-Carlton hotels they have a policy to never lose a customer. Whoever receives a complaint owns it and has to resolve it to the customer’s satisfaction. Then they record it to try to ensure it does not happen again. All their staff are allowed to spend up to $2,000 without referring to their supervisors, to resolve customer problems on the spot. You can often turn mistakes into real positives as long as you approach it in the right way. There’s the story of the photographic studio that ruined a roll of wedding film in developing it. This was a disaster, obviously. The studio contacted the newly married couple and asked them where they would like to go to retake the photographs. They chose the Bahamas and off they went. They are now the biggest fans of the studio and will recommend them to all their friends.

Going the extra mile

It was not cheap for the studio, but the alternative must have been worse. One complainant will tell 10 others and they will tell 10 others and so on. If someone gets a bad meal at your restaurant and does not tell you about it then you know they will tell others. You have got to actively encourage complaints, by listening, watching and taking action. In this country people are still quite reticent about complaining, so you must encourage them. When dealing with complaints the philosophy should be to apologise – properly and sincerely. Then, find out what you can do to make it right. You will be surprised how effective a marketing tool this can be. If you think of an example in your life of excellent customer care I bet all the money in my pocket it came from an occasion when something did not go well initially.

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