by Russell T. Westcott
Customer complaints, although often perceived as undesirable, can be a valuable resource for information. Complaints signal product and service failures and, importantly, help close the gap between the organization’s outputs and the customers’ perceptions.
For example, a large service-type organization with more than 8 million customers operated a “call center” for receiving customers’ questions, complaints, and even rare compliments. With service to customers deteriorating over several years because of escalating costs, charges to customers were increasing and most of its customer-base was enraged. The call center was in “red-light” mode during all three operator shifts, six-days a week. (“Red-light mode” means the “traffic light” on the wall remains steadily on red, informing personnel that the telephone lines were jammed with calls waiting.) One consequence of the chaos was that the number of complaints reaching the CEO’s office averaged 2,000 per month.
Obviously, something needed to be done about the deteriorating service, but first the complaint-handling process had to be fixed. A quality improvement initiative was launched to focus on improving operator-customer communications. The situation of frustrated operators continually trying to quell customer rage had to be stopped. Adding more phone lines and more operators was not the solution.
A Telephone Answering and Control Technique (TACT) was designed and 200 call center operators and their supervisors were trained in methods of listening, collecting information, analyzing what was troubling customers, learning how the problem affected customers, and arranging for an internal person to “own” and correct or carefully explain the cause of the situation to the customer. Coincidental with TACT implementation was a simultaneous change in the procedures for recording, tracking, and following up on complaints. The culture was changed from treating customers as annoyances or even threats, to treating customers from a “what can we do together to make this right for you?” perspective.
Over the initial three-year period, the following changes were implemented:
- Operators were retrained to be tactful, respectful, and helpful.
- Procedures for recording, tracking, and responding were reengineered.
- The organizational culture was changed to view a complaint as an opportunity—a gift.
The results were an almost a total reduction of serious complaints, and zero unresolved complaints reaching the CEO-level. Also achieved was:
- A substantial decrease in the use of expletives from customers.
- More reasonable customers to work with.
- Noticeable increase in customers’ satisfaction from attentive, responsive, and helpful operators.
- A substantial reduction in frustrated customers trying to get connected (many more orange and green light times on the traffic light).
- Timely and meaningful resolutions of complaints.
The organization realized cost savings from the increase in effectiveness of operators’ responses to customers, procedural improvements, and fewer operator terminations. With better customer feedback collection and analysis, corrective and preventive actions gradually turned around the organization’s offsite service to its customers.
Empirical data available from Consumer Complaint Handling in America: An Update Study, shows the importance of effective complaint handling process systems. The data show the importance of making it easy and convenient for customers to complain when they experience problems and for complaint handling to be effective and efficient as well. For example, for a product costing more than $100, the research results show that 9.5 percent of noncomplainants experiencing problems would repurchase. Repurchase intent increases to 19 percent for complainants whose issues are unresolved and repurchase intent jumps to 54.3 percent when complaints were resolved satisfactorily. Additional research by the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs/Technical Assistance Research Programs (TARP) showed that the speed of complaint resolution also affects repurchase intent, which became significantly higher when resolution was achieved quickly.
Suggested audit checklist of questions for a complaint handling process
- How many complaints does the organization receive?
- By what medium are complaints received (e.g., face-to-face, e-mail, website, texting, telephone, other)?
- What are the complaints about (e.g., a product, service, contract, refund, personal treatment, etc.)?
- How do key organization members view complaints (e.g., an opportunity, annoyance, low-priority chore, ignore unless very critical, etc.)?
- How efficiently and effectively are complaints presently handled?
- What are the customers’ perceptions of complaint handling versus the perceptions of the process from inside the organization?
- Are these perceptions based on collected and analyzed data? If not, how is validity determined?
- Is there an apparent need for an improved formal process?
- Do the people who handle complaints have a clearly defined process that is documented and shows the requirements, technical and/or managerial, for handling complaints?
- Does the workforce have the basic skills necessary and the competency level needed?
- Is training and or education required? If so, what type?
- Does the customer contact person know what’s expected, how well he or she is performing to expectations, and have the authority and capability to change how he or she performs (self-control)?
- Are customer contact people who meet or exceed expectations recognized, and, if performance is exemplary, are they rewarded?
- Are adequate resources available to effectively process complaints, e.g., funds, qualified operators, equipment, efficient process, etc.?
- Is the present complaint handling process cost-effective?
- How is this validated?
- Are the majority of customers satisfied with the resolution of their complaints?
- Is there a part of the complaint process that tracks satisfaction and identifies needs for improvement?
- Is the linkage between complaints and lost customers analyzed?
- Is this analysis acceptable, or is a need for improvement indicated?
- Is the cost-to-benefit ratio of the complaint-handling process periodically analyzed?
- Have standards/criteria been established and communicated to customer contact personnel?
- Is the resulting computation sufficiently positive, or is a need for improvement required?
- Does the organization have a comprehensive means for assessing and taking any needed action about:
- Whether the product or service provided meets customers’ expectations?
- Whether customers feel they are treated as having unique needs?
- Whether the effectiveness of customer service representatives (CSR) is continually assessed?
- Are customers individually treated as “valuable persons,” “nuisances,” or as “enemies?”
- Do CSRs inquire about and understand how customers use the product or service provided?
- Do CSRs feel pressure to quickly complete customers’ calls to make a daily closed-call-quota?
- Do CSRs understand the link between customers’ loyalty (retention) and how customers are treated?
- Is every contact from customers, complaint or otherwise, logged into a computer system to allow for tracking, trending, initiation of corrective or preventive action, and follow-up contact with the customer when applicable. And does the program identify any employee or work group responsible for a customer’s compliment (for which the individual or group should be recognized)?
- Is the organization’s response to a customer’s complaint monitored for timeliness, accuracy, completeness, and being customer-friendly?
- Are these factors periodically assessed for indications of need to:
- Improve quality of a product or service?
- Improve the complaint handling process?
- Retrain customer-contact personnel?
- Does the organization know the dollar-value of retained customers versus the cost of acquiring new customers?
- Is this figure periodically updated and communicated to CSRs and other customer-contact personnel?
- Is there an attempt to estimate how many lost customers don’t consider it worthwhile to complain?
- Should there be more emphasis on developing means for encouraging legitimate complaints?
- Does the organization’s language used express the belief that “a complaint is a gift” (e.g., “We feel good about the products/services we deliver; if you don’t please tell us what you don’t like. We want to hear from you and continue as your chosen supplier.”)?
- Is the organization’s intent and efforts to reduce customer complaints helping or hindering the organization (e.g., goals and initiatives, objectives, design, implementation, actions, etc.)?
Other questions to consider
- Is the complaint-handling process treated as an integral part of the QMS?
- Is the top-management support for carefully responding and resolving customer complaints, and working toward zero complaints established as a strategic goal?
- Has the organization ever considered offering an “unconditional guarantee” for all products or services provided? If not, would that be a worthwhile objective?
Common actions that customer contact employees should apply
Customer contact personnel may take a customer’s complaint as an attack on them or the organization and assume a “defensive” attitude. This assumption often results in a detailed and unnecessary apology that may imply or identify the CSR or the organization as being at fault. The words used in such an apology can even have legal ramifications pertaining to liability issues. Instead, after the customer has explained his or her complaint, CSRs should state a simple apology: “I’m really sorry that ___ happened. I’m pleased you called/wrote to tell us, thank you.” Simple and much less complicated. Some organizations have a policy that CSRs apologize first. If required, do so. But, I think it’s usually better to listen carefully to the complaint, giving the customer opportunity to explain and vent and reach a point when the mood becomes calmer. (Note: Using “I” rather than “we” sounds more sincere.)
CSRs should promise to do something about the situation immediately. This can be as simple as: “I’m going to record your complaint in our computer system so that we can track its progress toward resolution. Also, when we finish our conversation, I will contact the appropriate employee to take charge of correcting the situation, and will get back to you with information about what has been done.” (Change the words to fit the nature of the complaint.) You have addressed the psychological aspect by indicating action you will take.
Next, the CSR needs to gather the necessary information to initiate the correction/resolution steps. Ensure that enough questions have been asked to fully clarify the nature of the complaint. It’s helpful to differentiate whether the customer is complaining about how he or she was treated, or about a defect in a product or service, or perhaps both. Strive to collect the pertinent facts. In some cases probing deeper may be necessary, especially if you suspect the customer is circumventing the underlying facts. Find out what the customer will accept to meet his or her needs. The customer could be just reporting an occurrence and not expect any tangible solution. Never say, “I need some information; otherwise, I can’t help you.” The CSR is the one asking for help from the customer bringing the “gift.” Do not offer any further apologies.
Reiterate what you told the customer you will do and say, “Thank you for bringing this to our attention, we’ll get back to you within ___ days.” (Modify response to fit the situation.)
Do what you promised to do. Make sure the person to whom you directed the complaint understands all that you understand, especially the follow-up time schedule for informing the customer of resolution or progress status.
The organization’s goal should be to learn from its mistakes and take preventive action. The complaint-handling process should be designed to branch out in two major directions: 1) Change the product, service, and/or the process to prevent recurrence; and, 2) Check with the customer to determine his or her satisfaction with the complaint’s resolution. If the customer still isn’t satisfied, re-address the handling of the complaint, preferably with the customer’s additional information about what is causing further dissatisfaction.
If an organization is experiencing a horde of hostile complainers, as in the example given earlier, it could feel that an “anger management class” is needed (both for the customers as well as the in-house customer service reps). Erase that thought. It is the organization’s responsibility to deliver what the customer wants. The customer’s effort to contact the organization if unsatisfied, in any way, provides the organization an opportunity to do two things: 1) Thank the customer for contacting the organization, and 2) Correct the practice, defect, or mistreatment quickly and prevent recurrence. The angry, perhaps even threatening, customer needs some time to exhaust his or her repertoire of expletives and vent his or her frustration. The CSR needs to tactfully allow time for this to happen, and never presume the anger is directed at the CSR personally. (Do not feed the fire—let it die out!) Then, be as polite and helpful as possible in working with the customer in arriving at a reasonable resolution-action for both parties.
CSRs need to know this as they verbally respond to a customer: It’s critical what they say, how they say it, and when they say it. The following are some absolute no-nos:
- Pass blame, e.g., “You should know better than using our product for…”
- Threaten, e.g., “You know your problem is going to get worse if you don’t…”
- Downgrade, e.g., “You think you’ve had it bad. Let me tell you about my last customer…”
- Talk-down, e.g., “Did you think to plug it in?”
- Read the customer’s mind, e.g., “That isn’t really what you want, is it?”
- Unwanted advice, e.g., “The shorts wouldn’t have split if you bought the right size or lost weight.”
- Refusal, e.g., “No, that’s impossible for us to do. Our policy forbids it.”
- Butt-kick, e.g., “Yes, we can do that for you, but it will take four additional weeks.”
- e.g., “I’ll try to get you what you want, however I can’t promise…”
Don’t leave with the impression your organization should knowingly make mistakes so it can receive complaints. Consider treating complaints as part of the overall QMS. If your organization’s goal is to be the best it can be and seek recognition as world-class, then customer-relationship management is critical. If the organization delivers what it believes are quality products or services, and these are wanted and purchased, then how complaints are handled can either build the organization’s reputation or degrade it.
Most readers recognize that when our organizations seek customer satisfaction data, that feedback primarily comes from two categories of customers: Those who are wildly delighted; and those who are very dissatisfied and demand something be done. Those in the huge middle group are either not motivated enough to give feedback, not willing to disclose their feelings, or have already changed to another supplier. That is why when a customer is experiencing a problem and expends the effort to make contact before he or she considers going elsewhere, the organization should consider it a “gift.” Several companies have made their guarantees a competitive marketing advantage.
About the author
Russell T. Westcott is president of R.T. Westcott & Associates, founded in 1979, based in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. He is an ASQ Fellow, Certified Quality Auditor and Certified Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence. He is an editor of the ASQ Certified Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence Handbook 4th edition and a co-editor of the ASQ Quality Improvement Handbook. Russ authored Simplified Project Management for the Quality Professional (ASQ Quality Press, 2005), and Stepping Up To ISO 9004:2000 (Paton Press, 2003). He is active in ASQ’s Quality Management Division and the Thames Valley (CT) section management.
He instructs the ASQ Certified Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence – Refresher Course nationwide. He writes for Quality Progress, The Quality Management Forum, The Auditor and other publications.