Updated: Feb 12
The word ‘complaint’ has traditionally been seen as a dirty word, one that was whispered within organisations but that most senior people within any business would have done anything to avoid admitting applied to them. The negative connotations that came with complaints meant that for years, anyone wishing to create or grow a complaint handling team was likely to come up against misconceptions such as ‘If we need more staff to handle complaints then we clearly have big issues!’ or ‘We can’t call the customer support team complaint handlers – it makes it look like we have unhappy customers!’ (I can almost feel the collective eye roll of hundreds of customer experience and customer service professionals who have had to battle against just that type of mindset).
The great news is that the business world is steadily waking up to the power of harnessing complaints to drive continuous improvement. No longer is it frowned upon to admit you get complaints, or that you require a dedicated team to deal with them. In fact, companies such as Octopus Energy are leading the way by being totally transparent about their complaint statistics. They have nothing to hide, and they want to let their customer base know just how important improving the customer experience is to their whole team. Interestingly, Octopus Energy have also reported a huge surge in their customer base, in just nine months they managed to go from 600,000 customers to 1.35 million. During this period of intense growth, their complaint statistics remained steady with only a minor increase in issues reported per 100,000 customers.
Despite the increase in forward thinking companies like Octopus rising to the top, Salesforce recently reported that 91% of customers who are unhappy with a brand will simply leave without complaining. They also listed that only one in twenty-six unhappy customers are likely to raise a complaint. At the same time, the UK Customer Satisfaction Index dropped for the fourth consecutive time last year. What this amounts to is that often the first you learn of a customer being unhappy is when they switch to the competition – if you even notice at all.
So, accepting that complaints are a necessary evil is not enough. We need to take it one step further. The businesses who consistently wow their customers understand that complaints are fantastic, and if we can learn to fall in love with them too, we as a nation-wide customer experience industry can reverse this trend.
There are several steps you can take today to help your team love complaints:
1. Ban your team referring to a customer as ‘complaining’.
If you search the term ‘complaining meaning’ in a popular search engine, you get the following result:
the expression of dissatisfaction or annoyance about something.
"his complaining has been a little bit annoying"
While a quick look at an online thesaurus returns grumbling, bellyaching, moaning and whining as synonyms of the word complaining.
This perfectly sums up why the use of ‘complaining’ within a complaint handling team is so corrosive. As a word, it has negative connotations and anyone using it to describe a customer is subliminally giving themselves permission to see that customer as a nuisance. Instead let’s just refer to them as what they are, an unhappy customer. They may have raised a complaint – a factual statement, but when you stop referring to them as complaining you have taken the first step towards respecting your customer and their right to raise a genuine grievance. This simple change in approach eventually helps a team to feel more empathy towards unhappy customers, and this leads to greater satisfaction during and after the complaint handling process for both customer and employee.
2. Get rid of the idea that there is such a thing as an unfounded complaint.
How many times have you heard a complaint handler or a colleague express their frustration over an unjustified or unfounded complaint? It doesn’t seem fair does it? You have to spend your time investigating that complaint, even when you know the customer has just misunderstood the proposition, or had too high an expectation of what would happen, right? Wrong.
In order to truly embrace complaints as a driver for change, we need to accept that we have FULL accountability for our customer experience. We are in a position where we understand our business model explicitly. We know what our purchasing process is, what can cause delays and what the product offering is. Most customers will never spend as much time on our websites as we do. We are the experts and it is our obligation to ensure we arm our customers with enough easily digestible, intuitive information that they never have the opportunity to misunderstand, or expect anything other than what we will deliver.
If we set out to explain ourselves clearly and we understand that our customer is not the expert in our business, then we can ensure that any negative review or expression of dissatisfaction is looked at with absolute objectivity. How can we ensure that the customer understands something better in the future, or what can we change in our process to make sure there is no room for concern or uncertainty for our customers?
3. Set yourself the highest standards
When you count your complaints, don’t be tempted to lie to yourself. Just because it didn’t contain the word complaint, or because it didn’t come through an officially recognised complaint channel does not mean it is not a complaint. If a customer has expressed dissatisfaction in any way then they should be counted, contacted and learned from. Take it one step further – if your business model aims to delight customers, then consider anything less than a full five star review an expression of dissatisfaction. Sure, you might speak to the odd customer who confirms they actually did love their experience, they just hate to give out top marks for anything. You also might just learn the secret ingredient you have been missing all along.
4. Learn from every single complaint that comes your way.
Don’t just collect stats. So many companies are data rich, information poor. There are tools out there that provide the exact analytics you need to spot complaint trends, and enable proactive interactions that can inform your business and ensure that the volume of complaints you receive genuinely gets smaller over time - while your loyal customer base (and revenue) grows. Make it policy that each person responding to a complaint should suggest two things that could have prevented the complaint arising in the first place. Some of your best insight comes from the experts in your team and you know that they will feel more empowered and engaged if they have been involved in the change process.
So, stop seeing complaints as the enemy and give this approach a try, embrace the subtle changes with enthusiasm and see how you feel about complaints in a few months’ time. Who knows, this could be the start of a beautiful relationship!