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Fine Whine

Your customers have something to complain about, so why don't they?

Think because you're not getting any complaints from customers, you're doing a great job meeting their demands and expectations? Think again. Most likely, they're just choosing not to complain. Most customers rarely speak up, even if they have legitimate complaints. Why? Because complaining is viewed by customers as unproductive, complicated, unnatural and unnecessary:

1.Most customers believe complaining produces little or no positive results. Customers measure you by the experiences they've had with other businesses or salespeople. The past has taught them over and over not to expect much from employees, who they've come to realize aren't usually trained well enough to handle complaints effectively, competently and with genuine concern. Too many times, customers have stood in front of a counter of blank stares or listened to the sharp tones coming from apathetic personnel. Facing such scenarios, most customers give up, assuming that salespeople can't be bothered to fix their problem. They leave with inward hostility brewing instead. For their part, employees feel as though their company has won another battle, not realizing nor necessarily caring that they may have hurt the company's bottom line.

Solution: Take action to prove to customers that complaints produce quick and effective results.

  • Make sure each complaint is valid.
  • Identify the basis and cause of the complaint.
  • Ask yourself, "How can I resolve this complaint so it doesn't reoccur with this customer or others in a similar situation?"

Be aware that customers worry their complaint efforts will fail and that they aren't likely to push if they have to do much work to get their complaint heard. Deal with their expectations of disappointment in a positive manner. With quick and efficient action on your part, customers will more than likely become loyal and acknowledge confidence in you, and your products and services.

2.Complaining isn't easy to do. Several factors get in the way when customers want to complain about a faulty product, a rude employee, a late delivery or other problem:

  • Because they're angry and frustrated, customers get emotional. Emotions block rational thinking.
  • Because they're now being led by emotion rather than logic, it may be difficult for customers to vocalize their complaint effectively.
  • If the company has created barriers or procedures that make it difficult to resolve complaints, such as strict return policies, or complicated forms or steps to complete the process, it makes the complaint process more complicated and your customers' frustration and hostility deeper. The result? It's a no-win situation for both sides.
  • Customers probably won't want to make too great an effort to resolve a problem. Think about the last time you had a complaint for a vendor about a late shipment or for a big client who was late paying a bill. You no doubt re-evaluated your communication skills. You also probably had to figure out whom to go through to reach the person you needed. Fear may have crept in at the thought of handling possible intimidation. Also, you probably weighed what risks or repercussions, if any, would likely result from your efforts. This is all extra work, and difficult work at that. Customers feel the same way when they want to complain to you. Is it really worth their energy?

Solution: Make it easy for your customers to complain.

  • If you're in the retail business, keep feedback forms and a box for completed ones next to the cash register. These can be valuable tools for identifying problems before they get out of hand.
  • If you mail out invoices, include a card or questionnaire that customers can use to identify areas they feel need attention. You'll be surprised how many of your policies can be easily modified to better meet the expectations of your customers.
  • Call your customers personally to follow up on big orders or purchases. Allowing customers to discuss their concerns may prevent small problems from becoming complaints and returned products.
  • Have one of your managers follow up on all complaints directly if you don't have time to do it yourself. This provides better insight into what is actually transpiring between sales and complaints.
  • Don't let complaining customers leave or hang up before asking them "Has your problem or concern been solved to your satisfaction?"

The closure of a customer complaint is just as important as solving the problem. Done correctly, it creates a positive resolution that ends the questions, negative attitudes and frustrations the customer has--and brings him or her back again.

3.Complaining goes against the nature of most customers. Customers don't like the idea of complaining. Most people want to be viewed as nice and feel it goes against their nature to take control and force issues. Clients often feel very awkward and pushy when they're complaining, which explains why they fumble for words, get their facts mixed up, or totally get off on tangents that take them anywhere but where they want to be. The feelings they have reinforce their desire not to complain in the first place.

Solution: Develop techniques and skills that will bring out the best in your customers and deal with individual personalities.

  • Listen attentively to what your customers say and how they say it.
  • Observe each customer's behavior and mannerisms--facial expressions, tone and the like--to determine what type of person you're dealing with.
  • With aggressive customers, continually assure them that they're being taken seriously, and so are their concerns and problems.
  • All customers have ideas. Tell them you're open to new suggestions that would help the process and alleviate their problems.

Customers don't come in neat little packages and they aren't all the same. While some may be sheepish about letting you know how your service has disappointed them, others will relish the opportunity to confront or criticize you or your employees, whether their complaints are justified or not. Understanding your customers will help you overcome some of the inward inhibitors that prevent them from being open about their problems, or will help you soothe those who are more openly hostile.

4.Complaints aren't always necessary because there's enough competition and options for customers to take their business elsewhere. This is becoming one of the biggest concerns for businesses today. It's much easier for customers to switch retailers, distributors, manufacturers or service firms than it is to complain. Customers have become more knowledgeable about products and more demanding when it comes to service, so if one company isn't fulfilling their needs, it's easy to move on to the next.

Solution: Surpass your customers' expectations.

  • Maintain a customer-focused vision for yourself and your company in which you place your customers' priorities above all else. Your competitors are eagerly attempting to snare any client who has faltered in his or her loyalty or has been given even one reason to switch to another company. It's an open field for strategic battle tactics. Walk the walk of customer service, and measure all performance by the same standards.
  • Develop a customer-friendly complaint policy. Post it at strategic spots as a reminder to all employees--from the shipping room to the counter--and for customers to plainly see. But don't leave it at that. Train all your employees to handle complaints in a courteous, efficient manner. Empower them to do whatever it takes to please your customers.
  • Honor all your guarantees, warranties and promises, whether verbal or written, and do so with a positive attitude.

Standards should be based on clients' expectations of your company's efficiency, thoroughness and satisfaction. Stress that customers are the sole reason for your existence, and believe it. It's the one undisputed truth in today's competitive environment.


Shirley Bednarz is a principal of Bednarz Business Strategies (http://www.letstalkselling.com), a sales training and consulting firm in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. She has written numerous articles on customer-focused selling and can be contacted at bbs@coredcs.com

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This article was originally published in the February 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Fine Whine.

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