Whine On

It’s good for the company when customers complain. All the customer service literature says so, and most managers say so too. When customers let you know that something is wrong, you have the chance to fix it. As a bonus, you may also learn about an underlying problem that could affect multiple areas of your business.

Unfortunately, at the rep level, the reaction to customer complaints is usually quite different. It’s not uncommon for reps who field customer complaints to believe they’re working for an ineffective, disorganized company; after all, the vast majority of their time is spent hearing about problems, tracking them down, and fixing them. It’s a tough assignment. Customers don’t communicate clearly, and they’re often guilty of treating reps as if they were personally the source of the problem. Worse, some customers become abusive.

All right Most Americans don’t know how to complain effectively. Many people will just live with whatever is bothering them in order to avoid confrontation; they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, make waves, or jeopardize a relationship. A patient in the hospital doesn’t want to tell the nurse that he needs more pain medication because he’s afraid she’ll say no if he asks too often.

Or a parent is afraid to complain to the school principal about the way the teacher interacts with her child because the teacher might take it out on the poor kid.

This kind of self-censorship extends even to inconsequential matters. The waiter asks, “How’s the fish?” and the diner says “It’s fine, thank you,” when it isn’t; rather than complain, he’ll go to another restaurant next time.

All wrong Then there are people who take the opposite tack and suspend civility altogether. They assume that you need to be aggressive to receive adequate attention, so they practically strap on a gun belt in preparation for complaining. Although forcefulness can be appropriate in the face of an intentional or repeated problem, the fact that a complaint exists is no justification for giving offense.

It’s certainly legitimate for angry customers to be clear about their feelings, but if reps feel attacked, many of them try to protect themselves by shutting down or responding with their own assault. Once a person is operating in defensive mode, it’s much harder to work on any problem successfully.

Customer anger isn’t the only irritant for service reps. Some customers don’t think through what they want before they call and often don’t have all the necessary information available. Lack of customer preparedness makes the job harder for even the most professional rep. Still, irrespective of customer attitude or tone, it’s the rep’s job to listen, acknowledge, probe for relevant details, capture critical information, and swing into the appropriate action, because the average complainer doesn’t realize that it’s impractical and unfair to assume that the company will know what the customer wants to remedy the situation.

Make it go away In contrast, customers with complaints who take a sensible approach do provide a useful service to companies. In this holiday season, and particularly during the returns season that follows in the first two months of the new year, a customer who knows how to complain is a boon. She takes responsibility for her own concerns and works with the rep to get the problem solved. Good complainers are the exception, but there’s a lot reps can do to work with the inept. Here are some helpful techniques that will help reps get the best from each complaining customer:

n Reps should make clear that they want to understand what happened and how it has affected the customer. Reps often have to work hard to get the information they need. It’s their job to guide customers to explain what didn’t happen or isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. They may also have to encourage customers to talk about the impact of the problem, both to demonstrate sufficient understanding and to forestall any later distress or resentment.

n It’s worth the extra time for reps to repeat the specifics that customers have presented to demonstrate and verify their grasp of the situation. It also helps to ask questions about what action would work for the customer at this point (“How would you like me to take care of this?”)

n Reps should suppress their natural desire to ask why customers did what they did; it doesn’t help resolve the problem and often can be offensive to the customer. (“Why didn’t you put that on the order form?” and “If you had only let us know. . .” are real conversation killers.)

n Customers appreciate being thanked for their complaints and their continued patronage.

Once the rep has the facts and understands what resolution would satisfy the customer, he can compare the particulars of the circumstance to the policy and procedures that are meant to resolve such situations. It certainly helps if service policies are clearly stated not only in rep training but also in the catalog and on the Web site. It’s always easier to handle a problem when both the rep and the customer have the same expectations about how something was supposed to work. Say the customer requested Saturday delivery, the order says Saturday delivery, and the invoice shows the charge for Saturday delivery, but due to human error, the box got a Second Day sticker. It’s quite clear that the company is in error.

It’s more complex when the parties might have understood different things and had different expectations. Say the customer placed the order on Friday and asked for overnight delivery. He expected to receive his merchandise on Saturday. But he didn’t know that his call came in after the company’s afternoon cut-off for processing and that the distribution center is closed over the weekend. The rep who took the order apparently didn’t make the situation clear. The customer’s package won’t arrive until Tuesday, but in this case, the customer and the rep may have very different ideas about who is at fault and what the appropriate remedy might be. (Note: A company that cared about service and reputation would give this customer the benefit of the doubt and treat both cases the same way.)

Good complaints When the rules are unclear, or expectations vary, it’s particularly important for reps to have enough authority to make an informed judgment or have prompt access to an appropriate decision maker. Reps need the training to determine whether a complaint needs to be escalated, to whom, and how to expedite the resolution. Then reps can assure complainers that if they can’t take care of a problem themselves, they will make sure that the complaint gets to the correct authority for action.

When the complainer has confidence that the rep is competent, he’s less likely to spend as much time or energy venting or commiserating. So if a brand-new rep is not yet allowed to refund shipping and handling charges, it’s better for both the rep and the customer if this call is transferred promptly to a rep or a supervisor who can.

Reps who have sufficient training, authority, and judgment can lead customers to complain more concretely and completely. When reps accurately perceive the part they play in the complaint relationship, whether it’s flak-catching, empathizing, or proposing solutions, complaints are resolved with dispatch and customers are more satisfied with their relationship with the company.