Thursday, October 1, 2009

7 Steps to Turn a Complaining Customer into a Raving Fan

Most organizations hate handling customer complaints, partially because they're not very good at it. In fact, customer complaints are an opportunity to do either of two things -- convince the customer that his complaint is justified, and that you're even worse at what you do than he already thought, or turn the customer into a raving fan. Unfortunately, poor training and human nature conspire so you rarely accomplish the latter.

This conversation surfaced in a meeting of Chief Executive Boards International members where we were talking about vendors of which we're raving fans. One member said, "You'll never believe what happened the last time I called one of our vendors about a problem -- I felt so important." Wow -- a complaining customer felt important. Then she explained how that happened -- including 7 critical steps for turning a customer complaint into a good customer experience.

  1. Listen -- Humans have the ability to think, listen and talk -- but only 1 at a time. Most people, when first receiving a complaint call, are spending none of their time listening and all of their time thinking about what they're going to say next. Pay really close attention to what the customer says, and he'll tell you what needs to happen to make him happy.

  2. Apologize -- Whether it's your fault or not, apologize. Most people who have been married very long know how to do this. Even if it's entirely the customer's fault, you can still apologize for the fact he's had a problem.

  3. Let him you know you believe him -- You'll catch a complaining customer completely off-guard if you acknowledge the fact that they had a problem -- even if you're just acknowledging that they believe they had a problem.

  4. Let him know you'll work it out -- You're not saying you're opening the company's checkbook to them -- just say,"I'm sure we can work this out to your satisfaction."

  5. Ask a lot of questions -- Open ended questions are the best. "When did you discover the problem?" "What happened then?" "What have you tried?" "What can we do to help?" Again, taking an active interest in the problem and in a real solution path totally disarms most complaining customers. Make sure you have all the facts, and give the customer every opportunity to vent everything he's saved up before dialing the phone.

  6. Outline the next steps -- If you can fix the problem right away to the customer's satisfaction, tell them how you'll do so. If it requires some lead time, be honest about how long it will take. And, if you need to, what other resources or analysis will be required to make sure the problem gets solved for good.

    One vendor of whom I'm a raving fan, American Express, has a fascinating way of handling problem calls, usually in 1 pass, even though another person or department may be required. They say "I'm going to get the _____ department on the line and they'll take over from here." Then you find yourself in a 3-way "handoff" call, where the first Amex operator introduces you to the second, makes sure he understands why you're calling, and then excuses himself from the call.

    Bank of America, on the other hand, sometimes offers to transfer your call elsewhere, during which 50% of the time your call is lost and the other 50% of the time you end up talking to the wrong person. Other times they just give you another 800 number ("you're in the wrong department" -- like it's your fault) and you're on your own through another voicemail purgatory.

  7. Let them know you'll be following up on the problem with whomever needs to take the next steps. And then do it.

Reading through this formula, you might say "that makes a lot of sense", but precious few companies do anything like this. Why? Because they're populated by humans, and several millenia of conditioning turn on the "flight" or "fight" response to a complaint call -- they get defensive. And they start doing further damage.

Note in the above, nowhere does it say, "Tell the customer what he did wrong or who else's fault it was at your company (of course, it's not yours)." When you call Bank of America about a nuisance service charge that's not supposed to be on your account, they usually say "the computer does that sometimes." It's 2009 and they think you'll believe that computers just "do that sometimes"?? Actually, what they think is you won't notice, and you'll just pay the nuisance fee.

The key to this strategy is training -- it's not instinctive. You'll need to train your staff to walk through a customer complaint call "by the numbers", rather than rely on their own instincts, which will usually fail the average person.

If you have similar experiences where your complaint call turned into a good experience, please click "Comment" below and share them with us. If your company has an especially effective customer complaint management process, please click "Comment" and share that, as well.

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Terry Weaver

Chief Executive Boards International

Chief Executive Boards International: Freedom for business owners & CEOs -- Less Work, More Money, More Freedom to enjoy it

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