Dealing with Customer Complaints 101

I believe that one key ingredient to business success is happy customers. Keeping happy customers means, at the minimum, you are satisfying their needs. Once way to raise the bar is through powerful customer service. I ran across the following 5 step “Recipe for Recovery” by Ron Zemke, author of “The Service Edge” designed to provide a framework when dealing with customer complaints. I think he provides an excellent framework that will help you achieve the ultimate goal of continued and repeat business.

1. Apologize. When a customer complains, the first thing you and your staff should say is “I’m sorry.” This is a simple statement, but it sends a powerful message to the customer. Among other things, it says, “We care.” Yet how often do you remember to apologize when faced with a customer’s complaint? More likely, you immediately set about solving the problem, with a scowl on your face that sends the message “Here we go again-another crazy customer.” Perhaps you start investigating the problem. The customer returns an item, saying it doesn’t work. You say. “Let me take a look at that. You say it doesn’t work? That’s strange. We sell hundreds of these and nobody else has had a problem.” In effect, you are telling the customer, “You idiot. You probably couldn’t work one of these things if your life depended on it.” Or worst of all, you may just quote company policy, in your most authoritative “schoolteacher” voice. If you don’t say those two simple words, “I’m sorry,” you lose the opportunity to turn a complaint into a positive experience for the customer. Obviously. “I’m sorry” doesn’t solve the customer’s problem. But a sincere personal apology can help diffuse the customer’s anger and put you on the road to a positive solution.

2. Listen to the customer and empathize with his or her problem. A sincere apology sends the message that you care. Empathy sends the message that you can put yourself in the customer’s place and understand how he feels. Empathy is important because you must first deal with the customer’s feelings before you can address the problem objectively.

Make an effort to resolve the problem. Zemke calls this step “Urgent Reinstatement.” Urgency is the key here. You must show the customer that you intend to take steps to correct the problem immediately. You may not succeed, but you will “try hard” and “do the best you can,” sending the customer away with the knowledge that you did all you could. An apology, empathy, and a valiant effort to solve a problem will often be enough to satisfy an unhappy customer, particularly if the problem caused no more than a minor inconvenience or irritation for the customer. However, if the problem was truly serious-if the customer felt not just annoyed but victimized-then you may have to go further. For these serious problems, Zemke recommends taking two final steps.

4. Make symbolic atonement. This gesture tells the customer, “We want to make it up to you.” A coupon, a free drink, an offer to waive part of a bill-all of these symbolic gestures can help smooth over ill feelings and restore relationships.

5. Follow up. In the case of a serious problem, a follow-up call to the customer is a good way to smooth over the whole incident. The follow-up call provides another opportunity to tell the customer, “We care about you,” and “We are sorry a problem occurred.” More important, it provides an opportunity for the employee involved in the confrontation with the unhappy customer to bring the incident to a conclusion.

Few employees intentionally create problems for customers, and most employees are embarrassed if they create a problem due to an oversight or inattention. Make a Real Commitment Ron Zemke’s five steps to recovery represent a good approach to managing encounters with unhappy customers. But Zemke’s approach is only a technique. As good as the technique might be, if you truly want to turn unhappy customers into loyal customers, then you and your employees must be committed to satisfying customers, regardless of how much it costs in time, effort, and money.

How do you respond to customer complaints?

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