Customer complaints offer opportunities to make customers feel important, to feel indebted to you and to validate your integrity, according to David Allen Yoho, a Louisville, Kentucky-based speaker and trainer.  They can strengthen your relationship. The result of a complaint can be positive even when you've told them "no." The customer might actually be glad they had the problem because of how you responded.

Although complaints are born from a variety of reasons and are communicated with a huge variance in tone and intensity, a complaint is always a request. Your challenge is to identify what the individual wants (the request) without being distracted by their behavior. The challenge is: upset people rarely express themselves well.

Customers can be rude, profane, mean, deceitful, racist or sexist. Sometimes, it seems that punishing you is more important than resolving the problem. It's easy to respond with righteous indignation, but you'll only make the problem worse. Anyone can serve reasonable customers; only those with exceptional customer focus, masterful skills and self-control can serve unreasonable customers.

Although it's unpleasant to hear people vent, listening actively without judgment will enhance your credibility and drain their venom. The worst mistake you can make at this point is to fuel their emotion by interrupting, giving advice or debating. Telling them to calm down can have the same effect as feeding them a grenade. Reacting in kind to anger, hurtful judgments or foul language only intensifies their wrath.

Here are some key initiatives that will diffuse their unhappiness, identify the right course, promote understanding and help you exceed their expectations.

  1. Consider their complaint a favor. Research proves that most people don't notify you when they're unhappy. Thank them for taking the time to let you know about their dissatisfaction.
  2. Apologize for any inconvenience or offense. A humble attitude will usually disarm them and earn their respect.
  3. Express your intent to resolve the issue in a timely manner. When the customer continues to vent, affirm them and reinforce your intent. Example: "You have every right to be angry, and I'm happy to listen to whatever you have to say. With your permission, I'd like to get started fixing this mess."
  4. If you weren't the individual who caused the complaint, assume responsibility anyway. Assessing blame won't make them feel better or make you look better. Be the company. Place your ego behind the customer's welfare.
  5. Too often, companies attempt to buy the customer's affection with gifts or refunds. That may not alleviate the customer's primary concern, and it could be an insult. A sincere apology often means more to them than a gift. You might ask them how they'd like to see the situation resolved. Interestingly, the customer often asks for less than you're willing to offer. The intent isn't to take advantage of them; it's to provide satisfaction based on their values, not yours.
  6. You might want to offer them more than one solution. This offers some ownership in the resolution. When the customer requests something unreasonable or unacceptable (now or at any time), avoid using "can't" or "won't." Do advise them quickly and directly when you're not going to meet a request. Examples: "I'd love to do that" or "I wish I could." Then, offer one or more positive alternatives.
  7. Obtain a satisfaction commitment to the solution before you take action. If you don't have the authority to satisfy them or if you need more information before you can decide what to do, advise them of your process along with the timeline.

Here's where most service disintegrates. It's up to you to ensure the issue's been resolved. You own the problem even if you've passed it on.  Remember, unless you're perfect, your organization will make mistakes. How you handle them exposes your abilities and intent – for better or worse.

Jeff and Marc Slutsky are co-authors of five books including StreetFighting. They are executives of StreetFighter Marketing in Columbus, Ohio, which specializes in teaching how to promote, market and increase sales without spending a lot of money. Jeff and his brother, Marc, have a variety of audio and video tapes. For further information contact Jeff or Marc at: 800 (SLUTSKY) 758-8759 • 614-337-2233 fax 467 Waterbury Court • Columbus, OH 43230