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Listen Up: How to Respond to Customer Complaints Set up the proper processes to receive feedback in advance for sustained positive outcomes.

By Patrick Proctor

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Every business has its fair share of quality issues to work through and learn from. The goal is to not have more than your share. One way to capture the most growth possible through each learning event is to truly hear your customer's underlying message when they are telling you what they want and/or how your product/service makes them feel.

Within the world of quality control, the expression "voice of the customer" (VOC) describes the customer's views, opinions and feelings about your service or product. It is through this relatively simple yet highly effective model that a team can learn to best support their customer as issues (or compliments) are brought to attention.

An avertable failure that some companies bring on themselves has to do with the defensive manner that they take on, which often times lacks ownership of the problem, when interacting with their customer. Lululemon's experience throughout 2013 in combating customer feedback, where its CEO put the responsibility of the quality issues on the customer, might be a good case study for those studying this subject.

Related: Why You Should Let Customers Help Mold Your Company

Planning ahead of time is critical; having created and maintained proper processes and procedures prior to receiving "constructive" feedback will ensure a quicker road to a sustained positive outcome. Do not wait to get your response team and processes in place and trained.

There are four critical aspects to activating a true VOC program:

Listen. Make the most of customer feedback. Take time to hear the customer's complete story. The best way in which to connect with your customers and to win them over while you are addressing a "complaint" is to take the time to ask pertinent clarifying questions and to comment on other customer experiences relating to the same product/service. This will aid the process of getting the needed data from customers as well as helping the customer feel as though they have been truly heard, which is the single most important element to handling negative, or constructive, customer feedback.

Interpret. At times the customer's feedback does not directly translate to what the issue is through the eyes of the company. That is to say, the customer uses his/her own terminology and perspective when reporting a concern. Once the customer's message has been decoded, be sure to share this hard-won information with your entire staff. Even though not all team members are a part of your (primary) customer service team, everyone is responsible for quality and service. This practice also aligns the rest of your team and brings them closer to the customer's experience.

Related: Experience Your Brand From Your Customers' Perspective

Respond. Notice that this step is not titled "React." A thoughtful response is what is called for when addressing customer concerns. There are two aspects to this step that are equally vital. The first is making it right with the customer, which is how you stay in business successfully over the long term. Secondly, the internal quality improvement process, which avoids repetitive missteps, will ensure that your team's efficiencies and quality improve as well. More than for current customers, this internal improvement towards quality may allow you to expand into new markets, gain new customers, widen the scope of your product/service base, create more cost effective services/products, etc.

If you are responding to a customer complaint online, there are key components to keep in mind:

  • Do not send to a customer a "template" response.
  • Do not wait too long to respond.
  • A lengthy response, even if it contains good information, can work against you.
  • Do not provide excuses (meaning, do not provide what the customer will think are excuses). Be straightforward, take ownership and explain what your plan is to remedy the situation.
  • Thank the customer and make their efforts in sharing worth their time.

Monitor. After you have addressed the quality issues internally, observe subsequent interaction with customers to determine if outcomes have been adjusted to meet desired goals. It is critical that monitoring, which includes regular followup, is focused on processes as well as personnel. Even if the process was the issue which needed correction, personnel will be impacted as their behavior and performance will be amended to respond to the new process. Likewise, personnel issues (especially with service-oriented businesses) will impact processes at times since some processes or procedures are designed to support key personnel so that they may successfully implement an on-going function or project.

Many businesses fail to realize the true value of negative customer feedback. But it is the companies that take advantage of these opportunities for growth that will enjoy long-term, sustained success.

Related: Gary Vaynerchuk on Turning Customer Complaints into Opportunities

Patrick Proctor

Vice President of Operations, Stash Tea Co.

Patrick Proctor is vice president of operations at Stash Tea Co. in Portland, Ore., and is an experienced organizational development, HR and strategic business planning leader. He writes about workplace issues.

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