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Yes, Please Complain!

Believe it or not, you should want customers to complain.

Take the manufacturer of a vacuum cleaner which, when it first entered the Japanese market, was flooded with complaints that the bags leaked dirt. Management was incredulous — it had never heard about this problem from its buyers.

In fact, the Japanese were right. The cleaners did leak, and the manufacturer found and repaired the problem. In this case, the difference between a mediocre product and a better one lay in customer response to corporate behaviour.

Obviously, a Canadian has no more affection for a leaky vacuum cleaner than a Japanese. So, why did only the Japanese complain, while the Canadian buyers kept silent? The primary reason is that most Canadian firms are poorly organized to receive and act on this type of information, and their customers know it.

The absence of complaints doesn’t mean none exist, only that the organization involved is doing a poor job of eliciting and responding to them. Recently, published statistics show that business people do not hear from 96 per cent of unhappy customers. In a survey, people said they keep silent because; * They sense it is not worth the time or effort (more than 55 per cent said this); * They do not know how or to whom to complain; and, * They believe no one cares.

For every complaint that is heard, there are six others that are equally serious and 30 less serious.

Solicit complaints

Several years ago, a company issued buttons to employees who had face-to-face dealings with customers. The buttons read, “If you wait too long, call us on it” and “If we were rude, call us on it.” This campaign was carried on in conjunction with a program that told customers how and where to complain.

Unfortunately, the firm had no system for collecting and systematically acting on these complaints. So, the program ultimately failed.

Nevertheless, this illustrates an important point: To encourage complaints, you must let customers know that management wants to hear them. Open communications with your customers, and don’t fool yourself with half measures. Feedback is discouraged if your “hotline” is answered by a machine or if your questionnaire offers two short lines for comments.

Acknowledge expectations

To satisfy customers’ expectations, you must understand how they evaluate service. Customers are human, too, and they really do understand, for instance, that products are occasionally faulty. For that, they won’t necessarily judge your firm too harshly.

Your organization will, however, be judged on its courtesy, information (willing explanations) and responsiveness (absence of frustrating delays). Customers expect very different things and some of them are unrealistic. Some car owners, for instance, expect that their cars will never break down; some travellers expect a luxury hotel room at budget rates. It is management’s responsibility to tell customers what they can and cannot expect.

Records are a must to identify recurring problems. You cannot fine-tune delivery systems or address performance problems if you don’t know why certain complaints seem to keep coming back.

Of course, you must act. There are lots of managers who merely “collect” complaints, and never act on them.

Respond quickly

Whether customers complain verbally or in writing, it is important to respond quickly. Letters of complaint should be answered within 24 hours. If a full answer takes longer, simply inform the customer you are beginning an investigation, and will be back in touch after you have gathered more information. This fast response provides reassurance that you do care.

When complaints are resolved quickly, the likelihood of keeping the customer increases by 26 per cent.

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