Turn A Negative Into A Positive

How to benefit from customer complaints 

Complaints are among the most direct, timely and useful feedback distributors receive from customers. They are also often the most dreaded, ignored and mishandled customer communications. 

The most immediate reason to welcome complaints is that they alert you to situations that may cause you to lose customers and their future revenue stream. Complaints allow you to take corrective action before losing the business. 

Lemonade

Complaints let you know about issues within your company that may be routinely causing problems with customers or operational issues for your company. Repeated complaints about out-of-stock items may indicate a need for new ordering algorithms. Repetitive complaints about service response time may indicate needs for better dispatching, more service vans or better customer communication. Complaints also give real-time feedback on current customer and market expectations. If there are repetitive complaints from varying customers about issues such as delivery charges, invoice timeliness, or fit and finish of products, then there is an opportunity for you to learn and react to what customers expect in these areas. When complaint information is consistently collected and analyzed, it is like getting market research information without paying a market research company. 

Attitude Matters
To attain the potential benefits of customer complaints, attitude makes a big difference. Complaints delivered to an employee with the incorrect mindset will not be handled effectively. Typical unhelpful attitudes toward customer complaints include blaming the customer, whining and seeking retribution. These behaviors usually manifest themselves when an employee makes some form of one of the following statements: 

• “It’s the customer’s fault.” — The employee says that the customer either did something incorrectly or had unrealistic expectations. 

• “You can’t ever satisfy those guys.” — The typical response in this situation is to find a way to keep the customer happy and move on without addressing the root problem. 

• “They just want something for free.” — Often, the reaction is to try to satisfy the unhappy customer with the smallest possible credit and “get it back” from them later. 

• “Let’s get this over with.” — This person believes that handling complaints is a pain in the neck and disrupts his or her work. That’s probably true, but not a productive attitude to have. 

• “The customer is always right.” — Well, we know they aren’t always right, but let’s pacify them and move on without listening or, worse, learning from the situation. 

Obviously, none of these attitudes will go a long way toward effectively handling complaints. If employees see complaints as a burden, they will likely fail to recognize the opportunity for improvement. Remember the cars with the sudden unexplained accelerations? First, the car manufacturer ignored the complaints; then it blamed the customer. It tried to minimize the complaints and pacify the customers. Only after legal and legislative action did it finally address the problem. It is still paying the price of mishandling these customer complaints. 

On the other hand, instilling helpful attitudes for handling complaints is the first step in setting up your company to reap the benefits. Helpful attitudes for handling customer complaints include: 

■ “Effectively handling a customer complaint is an opportunity to preserve a customer and their future revenue stream.” 

■ “Complaints alert us to potentially major issues so we can avoid the consequences of escalation.” 

■ “Complaints teach us about our customers and our internal processes.” 

■ “Effective handling of complaints can win us more business in the future.” 

■ “A customer complaint is an opportunity to make things right.” 

Distributors who want to stop dreading and start benefiting from customer complaints should first internalize the helpful customer complaint attitudes listed above and spread these attitudes to all employees, particularly those on the front line. These attitudes must start at the top. 

Steps to Achieve the Benefits
Research shows that customers who believe their complaint has been handled fairly are more apt to trust the company, give referrals and do more business with that company. So now that the proper attitude is in place, what procedures must be implemented in order to actually benefit from a customer complaint? 

Provide multiple mechanisms for customers to present their complaints. One method is through a website complaint button with room for detail and delivery of the emailed complaints to top management. Also, use postage-paid return mail cards for customers to give both positive and negative feedback. These cards can be included with packing slips, service work orders and invoices, or simply mailed to customers to invite their feedback. Another option is sending company report cards and surveys (electronic or paper) with invitations to provide feedback directly to the company president. 

Schedule personal, one-on-one feedback visits with key customers. Ask what things your company should do better. Listen. I also recommend ride-alongs by managers at all levels with sales and service employees to solicit and hear feedback. Ask customers firsthand to register their feedback, suggestions and complaints. 

Provide employees with mechanisms to give management information about customer complaints and how they are resolved. This only works if employees are convinced of the company’s helpful complaint attitudes, and feel they won’t be reprimanded if their initial actions might have contributed to the complaint. The goal is to save customers and learn, not to discipline employees. 

Provide employee training on how to effectively handle on-the-spot customer complaints. Such courses are offered by many companies, trainers and universities. Do an online search on phrases such as “complaint handling courses” and choose something appropriate for your company. When employees understand the helpful company attitudes toward complaints and are confident in their procedures to handle them, they can save customers and increase sales.

Monitor your accounts receivable. Customers with complaints often simply hold payment, waiting for someone to react. Train receivables personnel in handling these situations. Encourage them to report complaint information to managers for resolution. 

Periodically invite customers to attend focus groups or advisory boards with agendas conducted by an outside professional. Provide lunch or other remuneration for one to two hours of their time to give feedback on whatever issues are important to them. Ask them if they have complaints.

Have someone monitor your company online. If a customer is complaining about your company to the world, you will want to know about it as soon as possible to try to resolve the situation.

Share complaint summaries with key managers and others who might benefit. Be careful about doing so without personalizing the situations in a way that blames employees.

Collect the information on customer complaints that you do receive. Analyze it and look for areas of needed improvements in company operations or for changes in customer expectations. Use the information to improve your company’s operations, product and service offerings, and customer service. Of course, as a distributor begins to deal more effectively with customer complaints, learn from them and improve, the next goal is to reduce complaints! A comprehensive approach to reducing complaints is to develop a customer service strategy for your company. The strategy should be based on analyzing your customers’ expectations and “moments of truth” with your company and managing those moments of truth (including complaint moments).

Two helpful books to learn about this process are At America’s Service by Karl Albrecht and Service America! by Karl Albrecht and Ron Zemke. When I managed and owned a distributorship, these books started me down the path to benefiting from complaints and reducing complaints by making customer service a defining, competitive distinction for our company.

Now that you are armed with these positive attitudes about customer complaints and ideas for benefiting from them, you are ready to act. The next time there’s a customer on the line with a complaint, your response should be, “Great! Give me that call!”

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Gary Moore Meet the Author
Gary Moore is a distribution industry veteran who, after selling his regional distribution company based in Denver, Colorado, now works as a trainer and consultant to distributors, focusing on sales, marketing, distributor transitions and supplier-distributor relationships. He can be reached at garytrentm@aol.com or 303-718-0470.