Question Time with Mentor John – When angry customers are good for business

All companies should love getting customer complaints. When a customer voices unhappiness, instead of simply taking business elsewhere, it gives you a chance to find out about the problem and correct it. However, angry people shouting down the phone, costly refunds and time spent placating customers can be a huge drain on resources. What are the best ways to turn angry customers into loyal advocates?

Managing customer complaints is a very reactive scenario. What are the proactive strategies that I can put in place to reduce complaints?

Analyse what are the common causes of the complaints you do get. Establish if there is an identifiable group of customers or whether they are more random. See if you can deal with the complaints common to one group first. Then set up user instructions to mitigate the complaints of the more random group.

The objective is zero complaints. The reality is, you will always get some. The solution is trained staff, complete records, transparency, willingness to be helpful.

Your message to anyone who complains is “We are even unhappier than you when we get a complaint. Please help us to resolve your complaint well and quickly and make sure you do not have cause for complaint next time.”

How you communicate this message depends on the severity of the complaint, whether there may be legal repercussions, the intellectual standard and reasonableness or otherwise of the complainant. Only a trained person can do that. Get those who will deal with complaints trained to assess all these points as they deal with the complainant.

Other strategies to deal with complaints depend on your type of business:

– For those dealing in consumer products, make your directors and senior staff go out and buy your product and use it. They will come up with complaints if anyone will. Study your instructions for use to see if you can remove ambiguities and make them simpler. Make them readable, 10-point type, not 6-point.

– Products with packaging should have minimal packaging, which is consistent with safeguarding the product. Customers don’t like to have to unwrap and then dispose of excess packaging.

– For consumables, make your ‘use by’ date clear – and honest. No good telling people an unreal ‘use by’ date and then having everyone say (as they do about the drug companies) that it is safe for long after the date shown. ‘Forced disposal’, which is what false ‘use by’ dates are about, is now widely recognised by consumers as planet unfriendly behaviour. You will collect a double whammy of distrust if you try it on.

In today’s internet era, one ‘share’ on social media can start a viral effect. What are the best ways of nipping this in the bud?

Never send anything to the social media that you couldn’t support in court. Could you swear to the validity of everything you are saying? If not, don’t write it. Express opinions, but do so politely. That is much more impressive than a rant. ‘Reasonable people get attention; crazy people get lawsuits.’ Excessive language, intemperate exaggerations, lies (fake news, as people like to call them), rudeness, may be the tabloid newspaper way of expressing dissatisfaction. It does not enhance your image and always comes back to bite you.

I’m always hesitant to apologise as it means admitting fault, which could have legal implications. Instead, I prefer to focus on finding the solution. Is this the right approach?

Of course focusing on the solution is the right thing to do. Your customer will agree more readily to that once you have accepted responsibility, if it is your fault.

Your insurance company will tell you what you can and cannot admit to. It is a scandal that you are not supposed to admit that something is your fault even when it is. ‘Thus the law makes fools of us all.’ Within the insurance terms and conditions I have always found it better to admit fault if it is justified. It shortens the process of complaint, usually enables you to keep the customer and reduces your hassle time.

My costs have been rising over the years, and for the first time I’m planning to raise prices of my services. I anticipate there are going to be many negative comments from my customers. Is there any way to pre-empt this?

The recent launch of the new version of Head & Shoulders Shampoo by P&G is a model of how to increase prices. ‘Head & Shoulders ULTRA’ addresses the problem of increasingly itchy scalp. For all I know, that may itself have been caused by certain shampoos.

The problem is not new nor do they say it is but the way it is promoted suggests that it might be. As there are, in any case, thousands of people experiencing the problem for the first time every week the appeal of a new solution is compelling, even though it costs more. Of course, it has to deliver or it will fail.

The lesson is that you should add something to your product when you want to increase the price. That way the consumer will realise they are getting something better / extra. It softens the blow.

Don’t fight with your customers, try not to justify your price increase (it sounds phoney), if you can, offer them a last ‘round of orders’ at the old price – people absorb bad news better when they have time to do so.

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