Speed of Recovery

First appeared in ‘Better Business (U.K.)

How do you handle complaints in your business? I went to a seminar once where complaints were described as snowflakes. They’re rare, precious and absolutely unique. You cannot buy them. They are the best feedback you’ll ever get. People have taken the time to tell you something you didn’t know about your business, I hope. You should cherish them.

OK. I’d definitely agree with the sentiment. However when I managed a betting office and had a six foot six inch thug demanding money for a bet he had put on too late I didn’t quite see him as a snowflake, or feel very much like cherishing him.

But, this is absolutely true. Complaints are the best way of getting an insight into your Organisation. You can’t do it – you’re too close. Your staff rarely do it – they may be too close to the business, too afraid of losing their job or simply couldn’t 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.

In an organisation I worked with, 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.

“Because we do.”

“Do you ever use them?

“Well we could use them if there were a problem.”

“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.”

It was estimated that this saved at least £20,000 a year in paper, workload, storage etc.

Back to customers and complaints. You know things will go wrong don’t you? As an Organisation with people there will be mistakes. It’s only human. Even without humans there are mistakes. So you know there will be mistakes the trick is not to pretend they don’t happen, but ensure there’s a process for dealing with them. Even more than this ensure that people aren’t afraid to own up to mistakes, accept responsibility, put it right and move on.

It’s also to do with the culture of your Organisation. How do you deal with mistakes in your Organisation? Is it a ‘shame and blame’ culture or a supportive culture?

There’s the story of a top salesman who made a terrible mistake. He’d bought a vast amount of fruit. He thought it would be a bargain but had totally overestimated and his company was left with tons and tons of this rotting fruit. He arrived at his office the following day and started to tidy his papers, clearing his desk. He gets a call from his manager,

“Could you pop up and see me?” she says.

“Of course” he mumbles and slowly makes his way up the stairs to his boss’ office.

As he enters the room he says “Look I know I got it wrong – I’m sorry – I’ve written my letter of resignation – here it is.” and puts a letter on the desk.

His manager looks at the letter, rips it in half, rips it in half again and puts in in the bin.

“You must be joking.” she says smiling “We’ve just spent £20,000 on your training – there’s no way you’re leaving until you’ve made that back for us.”

The worse example of a shame and blame culture I came across was when I was doing some fact-finding on motivation in the Polish Civil service. There was the culture of punishment for mistakes. On one occasion I witnessed a staff meeting set up to announce that one of the employees (who was ordered to stand up at the front throughout the meeting) had failed to meet her target for the third successive month and would be demoted. I’m sure the staff there would be motivated to do well in the short term – fear is a great short term motivator. However, there are 2 huge problems with this; firstly you have to continue this level of fear – even increase it – if it is to have any effect and secondly – in the long term the best people will leave.

What you should be focusing on is resolving the mistake. There’s a really useful tip I learnt a while ago about dealing with mistakes. It’s only two parts; part 1 – apologise and part 2- do everything you can to resolve the problem. Part 1 is about acknowledging the error and apologising. This doesn’t mean saying “sorry” hundreds of time and wringing your hands and sobbing. It means one sincere, honest apology. Part 2 is to do with action. How can we move this on? “What can I do to put this right for you?” would be an excellent place to start. It’s concerned with action and resolving problems rather than dwelling on the problem.

The process 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 don’t complain for fun.

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 record it. All their staff are allowed to spend up to $2000 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 one particular roll of film in developing it. This film was of a wedding. As a result half the photographs didn’t turn out. 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.

It wasn’t cheap for the studio, but the alternative must have been worse. One complainant will tell ten others and they will tell ten others and so on. Similarly one case off exceptional customer care will have ten friends telling ten others as happened in the following example;

A customer at a John Lewis department store had a seriously ill child who desperately wanted a toy parrot which they didn’t sell. Two store assistants went shopping in their lunch break to find one without success. Another found one on the internet and ordered and paid for it herself, her colleague bought one in America when she was there on holiday the following week and another employee from another department having heard the story brought her son’s toy parrot in with a great note from her son to the ill child asking him to look after it.

If someone gets a bad meal at your restaurant and don’t tell you about it then you know they’ll tell others. You’ve got to actively encourage complaints. You do this by listening, watching and taking action. In this country people are still quite reticent about complaining. You’ve got to encourage them. Make it non-threatening. Listen to them.

To re-emphasise the simple key to this; when dealing with complaints the philosophy should be to apologise and then put it right. Apologise once – properly and sincerely. Then, find out what you can do to make it right. Then make it right.

You’ll 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 it’ll come from an occasion when something didn’t go well initially.

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