Summary: A Complaint Is a Gift By Janelle Barlow
Summary: A Complaint Is a Gift By Janelle Barlow

Summary: A Complaint Is a Gift By Janelle Barlow

A Complaint Is a Gift Strategy

Imagine that a friend comes to visit on your birthday with a lovely present in hand. The first thing you would say after greeting him or her would, most likely, be an expression of gratitude. “Thank you. Thank you for coming and thank you for the lovely present.” Your entire verbal and nonverbal language would signal your pleasure at seeing your friend and receiving the gift.

What if you then opened this gift and found a CD purchased just for you? What would you say? “Wow! I’m so pleased. I’ve wanted this CD for some time. How thoughtful of you to get it for me. How did you know this is my favorite artist? I’ll think of you every time I listen to it.” Okay, maybe not that profuse but something along those lines.

Now imagine that a customer has called you with a complaint. “My name is Chris Cooper, and your wireless service never works. I keep getting disconnected, and your advertising goes on and on about how you can be heard anywhere in the country. And that’s not all. My first bill had charges for calls I know I didn’t make. But that doesn’t surprise me. If you can’t get the connections right, you probably can’t get your billing right!” Would you say, “Thank you for calling and telling us about this. How thoughtful of you. We really appreciate it”? Probably not.

But when we receive a birthday present, we do not hesitate. We say, “Thank you.” Why do we do this? Because a friend took time to get us something special—in most cases. What about complaining customers? Are they friends? Or do they look like enemies? What are they trying to do? What are they giving us?

Complaining customers are giving us an opportunity to find out what their problems are so we can help them and they will be encouraged to come back, use our services, and buy our products. It’s as if they have gifted us with a blog written just for us: “A Chance to Survive: Listen to Me and You’ll Stay in Business.” So don’t say, “Go away. I’ve already got one CD by this artist, and I don’t want to listen to another. I’m too busy.”


Complaints: One of the Least Expensive Marketing Tools

Customers, in most cases, aren’t going to generate groundbreaking ideas for companies. They won’t come up with the idea for the Toyota Prius hybrid; they won’t think up the iPhone or the iPod, the Bose noise-reduction headset, or the Segway. Innovation is the purview of any company’s research and development department. But customer feedback can help fine-tune product concepts for particular groups of people.

Furthermore, businesses may never understand customer needs until there is some kind of product or service failure. Complaining customers tell a company what does not work once its product has been invented and is being sold or serviced. But organizations must be willing to listen and have internal systems capable of integrating this type of feedback. Computer technology, for example, has been developed almost as much by users as by its owners.

For businesses that need to be responsive to quickly changing market conditions, listening and rapidly responding to complaints helps them stay in touch with customer expectations. Convenience stores, for instance, sell items that may remain in high demand for just a few months. Customer complaints (“Why aren’t you carrying . . . ?”) rapidly communicate changing marketplace interests. Other, less trendy businesses have learned this lesson as well. Market research can be static compared to the complaining, dynamic, talking marketplace. Notice how many times your own complaints actually contain a good idea for the organization. And when this happens, ask yourself whether you think there’s any chance that this idea will be presented to someone else and acted on inside the company. Chances are, it won’t.

The following is an example that we used in the first edition of this book, but it is a classic example of how important it is to listen to customers. In 1985, Coca-Cola was blasted with complaints on its 1-800-Get-Coke lines and protests at its Atlanta headquarters when it substituted its New Coke for what is today known as Coke Classic. Coca-Cola responded immediately to the outraged public, mollified shaken customers, and averted a potentially huge financial loss. When a company pays attention to its marketing research, it may hear only part of the story. After all, Coca-Cola had thoroughly researched the New Coke concept.


The Gift Formula

The Gift Formula is a step-by-step process that, in its most impactful form, is delivered in a set order. Nevertheless, you may find occasions when it will be more appropriate to vary the sequence or to modify the steps with your own equivalent language. The steps are as follows.

#1 Say “Thank You”

Thanking a customer is not enough to take care of the complaint by any means, but it is the basis for a positive conversation. The key is to remember that you aren’t just fixing a problem. As blogger Olivier Blanchard says, the thank-you just takes customers back to neutral. “Neutral isn’t where they were when they first took your product home.” You have to touch them emotionally in order to engage them after a mishap.

#2 Explain Why You Appreciate the Feedback

For example, it will allow you to better address the problem or fix your processes or make sure such a problem never happens again. “Thank you for telling me” or “Thank you. I’m happy you told me so I can fix this for you (or repair the damage we have done)” or “Thank you. I’m happy you shared this because it gives me a chance to improve our quality—and this is what I intend to do” or simply, “Thank you for letting me know. We’re better than this.”

#3 Apologize for the Mistake

best recommendation is to simply stop using the word inconvenience. Chances are, you don’t know the half of what this “inconvenience” caused for your customer. And take it off any signs such as “Sorry for the inconvenience caused” or “We apologize for any inconvenience.” Here’s what you can say: “I deeply apologize for what happened. I am so sorry for the problems this caused and probably a bunch of other problems you haven’t even told me. Please accept my apologies. This shouldn’t have happened.”

#4 Promise to Do Something About the Problem Immediately

Once you’ve apologized, don’t ask for anything right away. Don’t start to interview the customer. Tell the customer that you’re going to take care of him or her (step four). “I promise you I’ll do my best to fix (or look into) this situation as soon as possible.” Hearing this makes customers relax because they know you’re going to do something. Then, of course, you have to do something.

#5 Ask for Necessary Information

“In order for me to give you fast service (or to help you), could you please give me some information?” Don’t say, “I need some information, otherwise I can’t help you.” You’re the one asking for help from your customers. They’re the ones who brought you the gift.

#6 Correct the Mistake—Promptly

Do what you said you would do. A sense of urgency is greatly appreciated by customers and puts you back in balance with them. The Gift Formula will not be adequate if you don’t fix problems to the customers’ satisfaction or you fix them slowly.

#7 Check Customer Satisfaction

Follow up. Call your customers back or send an e-mail to find out what happened. If you are face-to-face with them, ask them point-blank if they are satisfied with what you did for them. If you do this, your customers will likely fall out of their chairs. Very few providers do anything like this. If appropriate, tell them what you are doing to prevent this from happening in the future so they feel good about having helped you with their complaint. Thank them again for their complaint. You are now in partnership.

#8 Prevent Future Mistakes

Now it’s time to manage the complaint. Make sure the complaint is addressed throughout your organization so this kind of problem can be prevented in the future. And remember, fix the system without rushing to blame staff. Punish your processes, not your people. Staff members are more likely to pass along complaints if they know the complaint helps the organization improve and is not used to blame staff.


When You Complain, Make Sure You Are Giving a Gift

Every time we stand in a long line in the grocery store because additional cash registers aren’t being staffed and we don’t point this out, we enable managers to believe that they can get away with inadequate service.

Every time we get passed from one department to another without being helped and we don’t speak up, we allow the company to not improve its internal communications.

Every time we go to a restaurant that is overbooked and we have to wait thirty minutes for our reserved table and we don’t speak up, diners let the owners believe this is an acceptable practice. Some restaurants do this intentionally so the waiting diners will run up a bar tab.

Every time we’re served restaurant food that is too salty, overcooked, too tough, or whatever, and we don’t say anything, the restaurant has no way of knowing its food is substandard or that the new chef isn’t working out.

So, don’t get embarrassed. But do speak up. Or write a letter if saying something is too difficult for you. If you use the following suggestions, you can complain with a minimum of personal discomfort and maximize the chances to get what you want—or at least to help improve service for someone who follows you.

  1. Be clear what you’re dissatisfied about.
  2. Be polite.
  3. Be specific and realistic.
  4. Describe the cost to you and what you expect.
  5. Make constructive suggestions.
  6. Thank the person for his or her help.
  7. Give the organization another chance.