A Complaint Is A Gift
by Claus Møller and Janelle Barlow, Ph.D.






Part I

Woman_gift_256523_L1Complaints: Lifeline To The Customer

When customers feel dissatisfied with products and services, they have two options: they can say something or they can walk away. If they walk away, they give organizations virtually no opportunity to fix their dissatisfaction. Complaining customers are still talking with us, giving us an opportunity to return them to a state of satisfaction so they will be more likely to buy from us again. So as much as we might not like to receive negative feedback, customers who complain are giving us a gift.

If we shift our perspective in this way to see complaints as gifts, we can more readily use the information the complaints generate to grow our own businesses. Customer complaints are one of the most available and yet underutilized sources of consumer and market information; as such, they can become the foundation for a company's quality and service recovery programs. This is no small gift!

In order to better understand complaining customers, Part I of this book examines the behavior and desires of dissatisfied customers. With understanding comes acceptance. We must welcome these complaining customers and make them want to come to us with their feedback.

"Those customers are cunning. They try to trick us into giving them things they haven't paid for."

"That customer is a jerk. There are no limits to what some people will do."

"Can't they see I'm busy?"

"If they'd just read the instructions before calling to complain."

"Can't they ever say anything positive?"

"All they do is complain--and about such minor things."

Imagine that an old friend you haven't seen in years comes to visit you 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 book purchased just for you? What would you say? "Thank you. I'm so pleased. I've wanted this book for some time. How thoughtful of you to get it for me. How did you know? I'll think of you as I read every page." Okay, maybe not that profusive, but something along those lines.

Now imagine a customer is calling you with a complaint. "My name is Sally Smith, and I ordered two pairs of slacks, one brown and one blue. I got two blue ones in the mail. How on earth did this happen? I checked my order sheet very carefully." Would you say, "Thank you for calling and telling us about this. We really appreciate it"? Probably not.

But if we receive the birthday present, we do not hesitate. We say, "Thank you." Why do we do this? Because this is a friend who took time to get us a present and is now giving us something that we want. What about complaining customers? Are they friends or enemies? What are they trying to do?

Complaining customers are giving us an opportunity to find out what their problems are so we can help them, and so that they will be encouraged to come back and use our services and buy our products. It is as if they are giving us a "book" (i.e., gift) entitled, "A Chance to Survive: Listen to Me and You'll Stay in Business". So don't say, "Go away. I've already got one book, and I don't want to read another. I'm too busy."

When encountering the customer who complains about receiving two pairs of blue slacks when she ordered one brown and one blue, many company representatives will respond along the following lines: "What is your name? How do you spell that? What is your address? When did you place the order? Do you have the order number? Did you pay with cash or charge it? Are you sure you didn't order two blue ones? Do you know whom you spoke to?" They may blame shipping and say, "I don't know how this happens, but it happens a lot!" If customers are very lucky, they will get an apology. But very few customer service people will say, "Thank you."

What if someone gave you a book for your birthday and you said, "Where did you buy it? Did you pay cash or charge it? Did you pay full price for it or get it at a discount store? How much does it weigh? How many pages does it have? Did you read it yourself? Why did you give it to me if you haven't read it yourself? Based on some silly best-seller list, you want me to spend my time reading this thing?" You would never be so ungracious about a gift. You would say, "Thank you" and you would mean it.

How can we begin to internalize that a complaint is a gift?

What is a complaint?

In simplest terms, a complaint is a statement about expectations that have not been met. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, an opportunity for an organization to satisfy a dissatisfied customer by fixing a service or product breakdown. In this way, a complaint is a gift customers give to a business. The company will benefit from opening this package carefully and seeing what is inside.

On the surface, a customer may complain that his newly purchased sweater shrank, or its colors ran and ruined a load of white clothing. At a deeper level, the customer is giving the store where he bought it an opportunity to respond, so he will continue buying more clothing from this supplier.

On the surface, a customer may complain that the trunk on her just-purchased luxury car does not close well. At a deeper level, she is saying she may buy her next car from the same dealer if satisfied with how the dealer handles this small problem. This customer is testing her car dealer.

On the surface, the customer complains to her grocer that the turkey she purchased did not contain any giblets, which she only discovered on Thanksgiving day itself when the store was closed. At a deeper level, the customer is wondering whether the grocer will take her word for it and how the store will compensate her for her disappointment.

On the surface, customers let their insurance agents know in no uncertain terms that when they call the insurance company to handle a simple question, their calls are not returned for days. At a deeper level, customers are warning their agents they may look at a competitor when their policy comes up for renewal.

What do you suppose most service representatives hear--the surface complaint or the deeper message? We contend that, unfortunately, all too many hear only the direct, surface message. And the end results are mismanaged complaints and loss of customers.

When organizations listen to customers with open minds and more flexible points of view, they can experience complaints as gifts. Unfortunately, most people do not like to hear complaints and we put up enormous psychological blocks to hearing them. Even more fundamentally, as we will discuss later, most customers simply do not grace us with their complaints. They just take their business elsewhere.

Why We Do Not Like Complaints

On the surface, it seems apparent why complaints have a bad reputation. Someone is saying that he or she does not like what took place. Who likes to hear that? Complaints are, in psychological terms, a negative attribution. In layman's terms, attribution refers to blaming behavior.

When something positive happens, people have a tendency to attribute it to themselves or to take credit for their own behavior. For example, a customer buying a dress will likely commend herself for finding it if she receives compliments on it, even if a shopkeeper clearly found the dress, brought it to the buyer, and urged her to purchase it.

Something different happens, however, when a failure occurs. Most of us like to blame other individuals or systems when things do not work out. For customers, this usually means that employees, specifically those most immediately accessible, are to blame when there is a product or service failure. Employees do the same thing. When they hear complaints they tend to blame customers. Most employees understand, however, that blaming customers is an unacceptable response to product or service failure, so employees mask their feelings and try to come up with more acceptable theories as to why things went wrong. A common explanation they come up with is that the organization and its policies are to blame. The employee may say to customers, "I would really like to help you, but there's nothing I can do. Our policy... "

(continued on the next page)

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