Turn Complaining Customers into Loyal Customers

By Bill Cates

In his article The Marketing Imagination, Theodore Levitt says, “One of the surest signs of a bad or declining relationship is the absence of complaints from the customer. The customer is either not being candid or not being contacted. Probably both. Communication is impaired. The absence of candor reflects the decline of trust, the deterioration of the relationship.”

Many people who write on customer service like to quote a study conducted by the Technical Assistance Research Programs Institute. Here are a few things the study revealed along with my commentary:

It costs 6 times more to attract a new customer than it does to keep an old one. So, attending to customer loyalty is a cost-effective endeavor.

The average business never hears from 96% of its unhappy customers. Although percentages vary from industry to industry, the truth is that most customers don’t like to complain – especially about the little things. Yet it’s the little things that add up and cause customers to move their business.

For every complaint heard, the average company has 26 other customers with the same problem. More evidence that customers will withhold their complaints.

The average unhappy customer will remember the incident for 23 years. How many people could they tell over that length of time?

The average happy customer will talk about the pleasant experience for only 18 months. This means we have to do tons of great things for our customers to overcome a pound of negative.

Complainers are more likely than non-complainers to do business again with the company that upset them. Bottom line – encourage your customers to complain!

“Why would I want them to complain?”, you might ask. “Complaints are not much fun.” You want your customers to complain for at least four reasons:

  1. If they don’t complain, you won’t know, and can’t help fix the problem.
  2. If they’re having a problem, then it’s quite likely that others are having it as well, and you need to fix the system.
  3. Research indicates that if they don’t complain, they are likely to quietly go to your competition.
  4. They are telling lots of other people about their bad experience.

I issue a challenge to every salesperson or company executive: GET YOUR CUSTOMERS TO COMPLAIN! Sure, complaints can be downright tough sometimes, but complaining customers are valuable to you and your business.

You must be willing to “be in the complaint.” If you just sense your customer is not happy with something, don’t stick your head in the sand and hope it will go away. It will, along with the customer. Be willing to step into the problem and be there for them.

A relationship that has resolved a problem is stronger than one that has never had a problem.

The true test of how you serve your customers is whether you are there for them when there’s a problem. If you want to build such a level of trust that your customers brag about you behind your back, this is a good place to start.

It’s time to Hit the “Jackpot”

My friend Gary Glaser is the sales manager at a company in Baltimore called Bindagraphics. His company serves printers in their post-printing needs. There are plenty of problems and complaints to be had in his industry. But Gary calls problems “jackpots” because he believes inherent in each problem is the opportunity to increase customer loyalty and increase business.

When customers see how you are there for them during problems, they value the depth of the relationship you are able to offer. And their loyalty, public praise, and referrals increase. Also, quite often when there is a problem, higher-ups from the organization get involved in the solution. This is an opportunity for you to meet other influencers in the organization and can lead to more business from them.

What Do You Do When Someone Complains?

Here are my ten steps for handling a complaining customer:

  1. Say “I’m sorry.” These should be the first words out of your mouth. It costs nothing. It isn’t admitting fault. You’re just sorry they are feeling inconvenienced. These are the most powerful words you can speak to a complaining customer.
  2. Honor their perspective. Even if their position is clearly off-base. Their perspective is their reality, and must be honored.
  3. Don’t get defensive. This will only make things worse for you and for them. Resist the urge to protect yourself.
  4. Don’t make excuses or argue. Nobody ever won an argument with a customer. Even if you “win” and prove you are right, you lose.
  5. Fully understand the problem. Ask questions and repeat back what you think you’ve heard. Make sure everything is crystal clear.
  6. Tell them what you’re going to do next. Seeing you take immediate and logical action will help them feel handled competently.
  7. Tell them when you’ll get back to them. Don’t leave them hanging and stressed about the problem. If they know exactly when you’ll be getting back to them, they will feel handled well.
  8. Thank them for bringing the concern to your attention right away. You especially want to do this with the little things, so they’ll keep bringing them up, rather than silently going to the competition.
  9. Resolve the problem quickly. Studies indicate that the faster you resolve problems, the less damage is done. Don’t let jackpots sit unresolved.
  10. Follow through and follow-up. Make sure all residual emotions have been cleaned up.

Take Their Satisfaction Temperature

Now that you know the value of the complaining customer and that you need to give them opportunities to complain, I suggest you make a habit of taking your customers’ satisfaction temperature on a regular basis. The nature of your business will determine how often that is for you (annually, semiannually, quarterly, monthly?). Do it in person, do it over the phone, do it with surveys and report cards – just do it!

As a selling tool, you might tell prospects, “When you do business with us, you can expect me to schedule a service review every six months. This will insure that you have every opportunity to give us your honest feedback about how we are serving you and how we can meet your needs for the future.”

The Chinese word for crisis is composed of two picture-characters. One means danger and the other means opportunity. Every complaint and every problem is a jackpot. One dictionary defines jackpot as “winning when the stakes are high.” Don’t miss the opportunities to set yourself apart from your competition. How you handle the jackpots will do just that!?

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