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Getting Customers to Complain

If none of your customers are complaining, start worrying. Because it's the wheels that don't squeak that should concern you. Here's how to encourage customers to speak up.

If a complaint is a gift, what do you call it if no one's complaining? Should you settle for the old axiom that "no news is good news"? Not according to Jeanne Rinaldo, vice president of relationship management at Integrated Loan Services, a loan solutions provider and member of the Fiserv Lending Solutions group, in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. "In my experience, I've found it's foolish to assume that silence from your customers is a good thing. It's the quiet clients who leave. They're the ones who don't make a fuss about problems-they let their complaints build up to the point that they think it's easier to leave than attempt to fix all that's wrong."

The truth is, most people just don't complain. Conversations with your customers are most likely similar to this standard restaurant interaction: The waitress stops by your table to ask, "Is everything all right?" "Fine, fine," you mumble through a mouthful of cold potatoes and rubbery meat. But why don't you say anything? Because complaining is tough on everyone, including the complainer. So you just swallow (literally) the bad service or awful food and vow never to go back to that restaurant again.

"I call it the 'accumulation of silences,'" Rinaldo says. "This comes from all the times that a client experiences a problem and chooses not to say anything about it. Once those silences build up, anyone who asks an innocent question like 'How's it going?' is likely to unleash a floodgate of complaints that no one can fix because the situation's gone too far. So at that point, the customer feels it's easier to start all over with a new vendor."

During her 30 years in the lending business, Rinaldo's seen several categories of "non-squeaky wheelers." They include:

  • The Satisfied Client. "This is what we'd like to assume when we don't get complaints-that all is well and things are just going along [smoothly]," Rinaldo says. "All of us have those satisfied clients, and that's good. But my contention is that there are fewer of them than we think."
  • The Accumulator. These people are so busy that they allow problems to mount up. Then something sets them off and they spout off, listing a string of "wrongs" that have been building up since you began working with them. "Do you want that client to be delivering that tirade to a competitor, another client of yours or, even worse, a potential client?" Rinaldo asks. "Or do you want to clear the air by letting them unload on you before the flood builds up?" It may be a terrible choice, but you should probably encourage them to discuss things with you or you'll suffer more far-reaching problems."
  • The Thinker. These customers are the ones who say to themselves, "They must know this already so I'm not going to say anything." "This implies you know about the problem and are choosing not to do anything about it," Rinaldo says. "This can't be good for business."
  • The Runner. These are the people who hate conflict and will do anything to avoid it. For them, it's easier to run away and find a new vendor than to tell you about a problem.
  • The Avoider. You can summarize these kind of customers with one phrase, "It's not my job to complain."
  • The Procrastinator. Of course, it's human nature to put off a tough conversation. "Most of us are very good at putting things off until they just go away," Rinaldo says. "Just remember that might mean it's your company that they're hoping will go away."
  • The Busy Bee. These customers use the excuse that pointing out a problem will take up too much of their time and energy. Says Rinaldo, "They'll tell themselves, 'I'm too busy. I'll find the easiest way out.' And I bet you know what that'll be: going to another vendor."

So what's a company to do? According to Rinaldo, you've got to make it easy for your customers to give you honest, regular feedback and then make sure you respond to them. "It's not just what you do when you get a complaint," she says. "It's what you do about the complaint that allows you to keep and grow your client base. If you encourage non-squeakers to squeak, you'd better respond to what they say." And that means developing a culture in your company that treats every complaint as the key to developing a better way of doing things.

Just how do you develop your customer relationship to the point where they feel safe enough to complain about things while there's still time to fix them? Here are a few tips:

  • Encourage your customers to become partners. "Underscore the fact that both of you can and should work together to make the relationship more productive," suggests Rinaldo.
  • Respond to all customer complaints professionally and courteously. "If you want their requests to be constructive, make sure you respond to them politely," says Rinaldo. "That sounds pretty basic, but I can't tell you the number of times I've heard stories about surly responses to client complaints."
  • Make sure your responses are direct and professional. Give specific and realistic feedback about what the next steps will be in response to a customer's complaint. For example, will you research why the problem happened and how it can be fixed? Will you discuss it with your staff? And when will you get back to them? Will it be in writing, by phone or by e-mail?
  • Use what's working well as a model to change what needs to be improved. "Rather than just looking at the negative, try considering the positive comments you're getting," Rinaldo advises. "Repeat the actions that lead to that positive feedback, and you'll end up with a client-driven solution."
  • Suggest the solution. If a client doesn't like the way things are going now, suggest other ways they might handle similar situations. Then dig deeper to find out if using one of these alternatives would work better for them.
  • Set a reasonable timeframe for the resolution. "Once a client feels safe enough to complain, make sure you have an agreement with them that includes a timeline for a response," says Rinaldo.
  • Make sure you're including the right people. If you want to make constructive changes, details about the problem need to be discussed with the right people on your staff.
  • Respond with a thank you-and then some. "If a customer opens up with a complaint, what should they expect in return? First and foremost is a thank you," says Rinaldo. "Thank them for being vocal, and thank them for helping you improve the way you do things. Then recap what you heard about the problem to make sure that everybody involved heard it the same way. Lastly, they deserve an honest assessment of how doable any solutions are. So instead of responding with an automatic, 'We'll fix that', deliver an explanation of what you can do and when and why."

The bottom line is this: No news is usually not good news. Cultivating honest and involved relationships with customers is not always easy, but it means they'll feel safe delivering complaints that you treat as gifts-not time bombs.


Andrea Obston is the president and founder of Andrea Obston Marketing Communications in Bloomfield, Connecticut. As a marketing professional, she's worked in the financial services industry for the past 30 years. She can be reached through her website at www.aomc.com.

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