Izzy Goodman, owner of CCS Digital, a seller of ink cartridges, knows a thing or two about handling a surge in customer complaints. About a year ago, he received an odd complaint: the customer’s printer couldn’t recognize the cartridge. Soon after, Goodman got a similar complaint from a second customer. So, Goodman examined one of the cartridges that he had on hand and discovered the chip, which the printer reads to recognize the cartridge, was different from others made previously by the same manufacturer.
Goodman promptly took action. He contacted his manufacturer, who admitted the company had started using material from a different vendor. Then he tapped a higher-priced supplier that he hired in emergencies and combed through his inventory to remove any bad cartridges. What’s more, he sent a replacement to every customer who called with a complaint, along with an extra, also giving anyone a refund who asked for one. Total number of replacements: 200 cartridges.
In the end, it was well worth the effort and expense, since he was able to keep almost all of the customers who had received the faulty merchandise. “We’re a small family-run business, but this was an investment toward the future,” says Goodman.
Even the best-run business receives customer complaints once in a while. But, when you start getting an unexpected surge or an entirely new crop, it can be particularly troubling. Still, with the right response, you can quickly address the problem -- and even use the situation to strengthen relationships with customers. According to Ann Thomas, principal with Anne Thomas & Associates in Minneapolis and an expert in customer service, customers who complain and are satisfied by the company’s response are 30 percent more loyal than those who never make a fuss.
How to react the right way? Follow these four steps to handling customer complaints:
Make sure your front-line employees know what to do. Those staffers likely to be the first to receive complaints need a system for sharing that information with their group or boss. By doing so, they’ll quickly be able to tell when a new pattern of problems has arisen. “You need to send a message to those employees how important it is to get that information out to the rest of the organization,” says Thomas.
Respond to customers ASAP. “Focus on the person first,” says Thomas. That means listening politely, allowing the customer to vent, if necessary, and assuring the individual you’ll take care of the problem immediately.
Take, for example, Richard Hayman, president of Just Moulding in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Recently, the firm started receiving complaints about cracking chalk used when installing crown molding. Since the calls were coming into the company’s two offices, he knew the problem was with the chalk. First thing, employees returned the calls quickly and, in addition, asked customers to call immediately if they saw more cracks. Then, in response to each complaint, they sent an installer the next day to reapply the chalk. “The trick in handling complaints is to listen and respond quickly and without hesitation,” says Hayman.
When you speak to customers, you also can ask whether they want updates about steps you’re taking to address the problem. “Send out frequent messages to let them know they’re not being ignored,” says Rebecca Morgan, author of Calming Upset Customers (Axzo Press, 2010) and a San Jose, California-based customer service specialist.
Determine the root cause. Just because you know customers are reporting that, say, they’re receiving damaged goods, doesn’t mean you know what’s created that problem. You might have a new employee in shipping who hasn’t been trained adequately. Or, alternatively, your supplier might be using different, substandard materials.
The key is asking customers some important questions as soon as they start complaining. Examples: What was the problem? When did they notice it? Were there instructions that weren’t clear? Thomas points to a retailer selling house wares that recently started getting calls about a defect in a particular product. After customer service reps began asking the right questions, they realized there was a defect caused by a change in the manufacturing process. The company ended up dropping the product.
Another tack is to use software to track complaints, by assigning a specific code to particular issues. A toy maker, for example, might include codes for such problems as “defective product,” “confusing instructions,” or “unwieldy packaging.” “It allows you to get a bigger picture from a bunch of individual complaints,” says Jeff Susich, who heads Customer Care Outsourcing, a customer service consultancy in Cincinnati.
Contact the culprit. When you’ve determined the cause of the complaint, you’ll have to approach the people involved to see about fixing it -- even if the client is partially at fault. Thomas points to a relocation company that recently started getting word that employees at one client weren’t receiving their checks quickly or were being paid the wrong amounts. The issue, it turned out, was partly that the company hadn’t clearly communicated the reimbursement process. But, also, the client’s accounting office was taking too long to approve payments. After the company explained the situation, the client made some changes and fixed the problem.