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'scomplaining? Should you settle for the old axiom that "no newsis good news"? Not according to Jeanne Rinaldo, vice presidentof relationship management at Integrated Loan Services, a loan solutions providerand member of the Fiserv Lending Solutions group, in Rocky Hill,Connecticut. "In my experience, I've found it'sfoolish to assume that silence from your customers is a good thing.It's the quiet clients who leave. They're the ones whodon't make a fuss about problems-they let theircomplaints build up to the point that they think it's easier toleave than attempt to fix all that's wrong."

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

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

During her 30 years in the lending business, Rinaldo's seenseveral categories of "non-squeaky wheelers." Theyinclude:

  • The Satisfied Client. "This is what we'd liketo assume when we don't get complaints-that all is welland 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 wethink."
  • The Accumulator. These people are so busy that theyallow problems to mount up. Then something sets them off and theyspout off, listing a string of "wrongs" that have beenbuilding up since you began working with them. "Do you wantthat client to be delivering that tirade to a competitor, anotherclient of yours or, even worse, a potential client?" Rinaldoasks. "Or do you want to clear the air by letting them unloadon you before the flood builds up?" It may be a terriblechoice, but you should probably encourage them to discuss thingswith you or you'll suffer more far-reachingproblems."
  • The Thinker. These customers are the ones who say tothemselves, "They must know this already so I'm not goingto say anything." "This implies you know about theproblem and are choosing not to do anything about it," Rinaldosays. "This can't be good for business."
  • The Runner. These are the people who hate conflict andwill do anything to avoid it. For them, it's easier to run awayand find a new vendor than to tell you about a problem.
  • The Avoider. You can summarize these kind of customerswith one phrase, "It's not my job to complain."
  • The Procrastinator. Of course, it's human nature toput off a tough conversation. "Most of us are very good atputting things off until they just go away," Rinaldo says."Just remember that might mean it's your company thatthey're hoping will go away."
  • The Busy Bee. These customers use the excuse thatpointing out a problem will take up too much of their time andenergy. Says Rinaldo, "They'll tell themselves,'I'm too busy. I'll find the easiest way out.' AndI bet you know what that'll be: going to anothervendor."

So what's a company to do? According to Rinaldo, you'vegot to make it easy for your customers to give you honest, regularfeedback and then make sure you respond to them. "It's notjust what you do when you get a complaint," she says."It's what you do about the complaint that allows you tokeep and grow your client base. If you encourage non-squeakers tosqueak, you'd better respond to what they say." And thatmeans developing a culture in your company that treats everycomplaint as the key to developing a better way of doingthings.

Just how do you develop your customer relationship to the pointwhere they feel safe enough to complain about things whilethere'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 worktogether to make the relationship more productive," suggestsRinaldo.
  • Respond to all customer complaints professionally andcourteously. "If you want their requests to beconstructive, make sure you respond to them politely," saysRinaldo. "That sounds pretty basic, but I can't tell youthe number of times I've heard stories about surly responses toclient complaints."
  • Make sure your responses are direct and professional.Give specific and realistic feedback about what the next steps willbe in response to a customer's complaint. For example, will youresearch why the problem happened and how it can be fixed? Will youdiscuss 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 needsto 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 thatpositive feedback, and you'll end up with a client-drivensolution."
  • Suggest the solution. If a client doesn't like theway things are going now, suggest other ways they might handlesimilar situations. Then dig deeper to find out if using one ofthese alternatives would work better for them.
  • Set a reasonable timeframe for the resolution."Once a client feels safe enough to complain, make sure youhave an agreement with them that includes a timeline for aresponse," says Rinaldo.
  • Make sure you're including the right people. If youwant to make constructive changes, details about the problem needto be discussed with the right people on your staff.
  • Respond with a thank you-and then some. "If acustomer opens up with a complaint, what should they expect inreturn? First and foremost is a thank you," says Rinaldo."Thank them for being vocal, and thank them for helping youimprove the way you do things. Then recap what you heard about theproblem to make sure that everybody involved heard it the same way.Lastly, they deserve an honest assessment of how doable anysolutions are. So instead of responding with an automatic,'We'll fix that', deliver an explanation of what youcan do and when and why."

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

Andrea Obston is the president and founder of Andrea ObstonMarketing Communications in Bloomfield, Connecticut. As a marketingprofessional, she's worked in the financial services industryfor the past 30 years. She can be reached through her website

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