Handling customer complaints

27 April 2005
Handling customer complaints

UK consumers haven't always been known for voicing their complaints. It can be embarrassing and confrontational, and many people just think it isn't worth the bother. But times are changing.

Why complaints are important

Which scenario is better: the unhappy customer who vents their spleen, or the unhappy customer who says nothing and takes his or her business to a competitor? The former, for several reasons. First, it gives you the opportunity not to lose that individual customer and any others whom they may go on to talk to about their problem; and second, because it can help you identify potential weaknesses within your business.

How much worse it would be if you were giving an unsatisfactory service and you didn't even know it. Complaints or, perhaps more accurately, feedback, should be actively encouraged. It is valuable to your business. Handle complaints well and they can be used to your advantage.

Responding to a complaint

It's never easy dealing with someone who is angry or unhappy - especially if your business is the root cause of his or her problem. The first thing to do is to defuse the situation and let them get whatever they want to say off their chest, irrespective of whether they are right or wrong. It may be satisfying to win an argument with a customer who is clearly in the wrong, but at the end of the day you'll lose anyway, as they'll take their custom elsewhere. Listen to what they have to say and acknowledge their feelings. Apologise for the situation without accepting specific blame. Empathise with what they are thinking, and try to put yourself in their position. This will give you a better understanding of not only how you will resolve the complaint, but also how to use it to your advantage by building better business practices and showing the customer how important they are to you.

Make sure you get back to the customer quickly. There is nothing worse than having to wait for a response, especially if you don't even know if there will be one. While the customer is waiting, the chances are they will be talking to many people about their negative experience, seriously damaging your reputation and costing you potential customers.

Be prompt, concise and specific to the complaint in question, rather than generalising or shifting blame in the direction of others. Explain how you are going to rectify it. Having defused the customer's anger, you need now to show you are true to your word by meeting their expectations. Except you shouldn't just meet them - you should exceed them. If you can resolve their complaint and then go beyond the call of duty, you will be well on the way to creating brand loyalty to your business. The little things can make a difference.

Encourage feedback

Think of the times when you are the customer. Are you always happy with the product or service you receive? Do you always complain? Many people don't - they just take their business elsewhere. But you, the business owner, need to know what your customer is thinking. Make it easy for them by explaining, either at the point of purchase or in sales literature, that you welcome their feedback - and, what's more, let them know that you will act on it. People are far more likely to fill in customer satisfaction surveys if they know that the business will personally acknowledge their opinions and resolve a dispute quickly and without fuss.

Involve staff

Make sure staff are well briefed on the complaints policy. Also reassure them that they will not suffer from any complaints. A member of your sales team who fears the consequences of someone making a complaint might be tempted to keep it to themselves. Assure them that complaints are not a negative thing, but merely an opportunity to reinforce the strength of your service, and that they won't be held accountable for minor mistakes.

Useful contacts/information

The consumer and competition policy website of the DTI (www.dti.gov.uk/ccp/) is a good starting point for more information and advice on how to deal with complaints, and for finding out whether the complainant is right.

There is a good business section on the Trading Standards website (www.tradingstandards.gov.uk) including guidance leaflets that cover, among other things, consumer buying rights.

A similar section at the Office of Fair Trading website (www.oft.gov.uk) can help outline where you stand with regards to the law, while you can get excellent free information at www.freelawyer.co.uk on various pieces of legislation, such as the Sale of Goods Act and the Trade Descriptions Act.

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