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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.
October 18, 2004

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:

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:

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