We’ve all heard the life maxim that ends with “ … you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” In business, as in life, this is true so no matter how hard you work and how well you serve your customers, your small business is bound to get complaints from time to time. But contrary to what many people believe, customer complaints can be good for your small business.
How is that, you ask? Customer complaints are just another form of customer feedback and every successful business – no matter how small or large -- incorporates customer feedback into their ongoing business operations, strategy, and product or service offering. We recommend your small business follow these five steps to receive, process, and respond to customer complaints and to make your business even better.
Step 1: CATEGORIZE
Step 1 is to listen carefully to understand the nature of any complaint so that you can categorize it. Every business is unique and you should come up with your own list of categories so that you can see any emerging patterns and so that you can prioritize (step 2) your actions. Some examples of categories are first-time complaints, serial complaints (and complainers), a complaint from what you consider a loyal customer, a complaint about your product (or service) features, a time-sensitive or urgent issue, a personnel complaint, a complaint based on a misunderstanding, and a complaint from a new customer based on a mismatch of expectations.
Contrary to a popular expression, the customer is not always right. Most customers with complaints will be based on legitimate concerns -- and you should incorporate that valuable feedback to improve your business. But others may not understand your offering or they may have an unrealistic expectation on what it can do for them. This too is valuable feedback as you can revise how you can make your offering better understood (e.g. better customer education). At the same time, your upfront “selling” process should be revised to make clear the benefits of your product - so there aren’t mismatched or overinflated expectations with future clients.
Step 2: PRIORITIZE
You shouldn’t treat all complaints equally so consider which category the complaint falls into and ask yourself these additional questions before taking any action:
· What is the urgency and importance of this complaint?
· Is this complaint part of pattern that represents a root problem that needs to first be resolved?
· What is the frequency that a similar complaint arises?
· What is the source of the complaint or manner in which it was received?
If a customer has an urgent issue that is also important, then it should be top of your list. In fact, a helpful matrix for prioritizing is to consider where a complaint falls on the IMPORTANT / URGENCY matrix. When a customer is involved, everything urgent may also seem important but you must stand back and evaluate each request in relation to the other.
When evaluating the substance of any complaint you must also consider the medium in which it was made. Since the world is increasingly moving online, complaints broadcast over social media like Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter - or in any public forum - need to be prioritized and addressed without delay. It would be nice if every customer could be treated equally but the unfortunate reality is that an unhappy customer that publicly broadcasts their discontent can snowball out of control and create an even larger problem for your business. Most popular social media platforms today have lots of reach but are devoid of any accountability so trolls can take a toll on your business if left unchecked.
Step 3: APOLOGIZE
After you listen to understand the origin of any customer dissatisfaction, it’s important to then apologize. Nothing angers a customer more than when you minimize their frustration or show that you don’t understand their issue and by apologizing, you show empathy for them. It’s also important to offer an explanation when making your apology. Don’t offer an explanation if it shows indifference or one that doesn’t take some responsibility for the cause of the complaint.
Psychologists have studied the science of apologies and it shows that by offering an explanation (e.g. “we failed you because…”), it makes it twice as likely that your apology is well received. Ideally, your explanation will show that you are competent in your business and that your customer has made the right decision in buying from you in the first place.
4: PROPOSE A SOLUTION WHILE STRIVING TO EXCEED CUSTOMER EXPECTATIONS
After you apologize, you must propose a solution that addresses the complaint. During the “listening” step, it’s good to solicit the customer’s perspective on what they view to be the right solution. Customers may have very specific remedies or demands related to their complaint, others may be merely venting about their concerns, and others yet may not know how to remedy but realize that “something must be done.”
Whenever possible, and especially in the instances where a complaint comes from a potentially recurring event, you will want to propose a solution that addresses the root cause of the complaint. Whether you make that root cause transparent to the customer, and the helpfulness of doing that or not is something for which you must exercise your own business judgment.
As you propose the solution, you should also try to turn the complaint into an opportunity. Studies have shown that customer loyalty can increase at the successful resolution of a complaint so this should be your goal. For example, if your customer expressed compensation as a solution but at a lower level than you might have originally planned to offer, then split the difference and watch as your customer responds in delight to your offer. This is “1+ customer service” where the “ONE” is meeting your customer’s expectations and the “PLUS” is exceeding it.
5: FOLLOW UP
Since a customer complaint represents one form of feedback, you’ll want to put in place a mechanism to follow up. Again, you’ll want to make sure the root cause was addressed. While large companies may be able to invest a great deal of resources and deploy 3rd party consultants to create surveys with teams to do data analysis, it’s not realistic for your small business to consider such approaches. For follow up, you can create a simple calendar reminder and email template to follow up with customers to “check in” and measure their satisfaction some time down the road. A simple check-in can validate that the original cause of the complaint was addressed and hasn’t resurfaced. It also goes a long way to showing your customers that you are still listening and you care.
When you receive them, customer complaints can seem painful because they represent something is awry with your business. But no small business is immune from receiving complaints and if you’re innovating and experimenting, you’re bound to find something needs adjusting from time to time. By following these five steps outlined above you’ll have a great chance of converting your customer with complaints into more loyal customers and to simultaneously improving your business.
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