There's gold in complaints

An angry client and a complaint. In business we all hope that we won’t get them - customer complaints, that is. They are failures: they tell us we’ve failed to satisfy a customer.

But there can also be an opportunity. And that's one reason why ISO 9001 requires what it terms effective arrangements for communicating with customers, and for responding to a customer complaint. Here’s how one company pulled success out of the jaws of failure - and did it brilliantly.

I’d been asked to participate in a business event on behalf of my client. Someone from the company supplying the services (let’s call them Greens) came to deliver a particular service.

As the time wore on, I was less and less impressed with the work of the Greens’ representative.  I though it ranged from barely adequate to downright poor. He seemed more interested in being the expert, rather than delivering service, telling the client what to do, but without bothering to ask questions first!

Then again, only a few days later, a very similar thing happened.

Different client, different rep ... but this time, even worse. This rep. was actively rude, with a lack of customer service I found appalling.

The problem was that, in each case, the client really needed that service.

What to do?

I rang a contact at Greens, and outlined my concern.

And that’s where it got interesting.

Her response was immediate: the concern in her voice was immediate and sounded genuine. Greens didn’t condone such behaviour, she said. She gave me details of their manager (his name and phone number) and she also said she would contact the General Manager. When I returned to the office, the manager she'd given me the name of rang. He didn’t justify, argue or blame, but focussed on finding out the facts. He immediately offered to replace their company rep. And would I make the complaint official? Hmm.

There were some potentially tricky issues about that, for me and for the clients. I had to consider the issues and the possible ramifications. But I also felt strongly about it as unacceptable. With client permission, I wrote a letter. Set out our expectations, then explained what the clients had received. What we were unhappy with and why, the lack of value, or service, with specific examples. And yes, I had it reviewed before I sent it.

Now, I’ve had to deal with Greens, off and on, for some years, and been under-impressed on any number of occasions. So at this point, my feelings about the company in general were not good. I'd been disappointed with them in general, and then with this event in particular.

But their response in this situation both surprised and delighted me.

Way above 'just average', they demonstrated an almost textbook example of how to respond.

Their managers initiated discussions about action to rectify each situation. And, would I be willing to come and discuss my experience and perceptions of Greens further? Could I make it for lunch sometime soon? Over lunch with executive management, the business side of things was handled skillfully and professionally, with pre-planning evident. They used it as an opportunity not just to address the two specific complaints, but went further and gathered more information. Were there other areas where they fell short? Yes? Could I give examples or details?

These were managers genuinely concerned with improvement, not just pacifying or pretending, but actively seeking opportunities for feedback and improvement. Even in difficult situations. ‘They just soft-soaped you,’ you might say. While this could be true, you have to look at what is done, not just what's said. The response throughout was all I could wish for: prompt, professional and positive. And yes, the resolutions took a little time to negotiate, but ultimately both the clients & I were very satisfied. The resolutions included providing a different person for one client, and a reduced charge, and Greens accepting they have lost the other client permanently. (That client was already deeply dissatisfied, and the particular event was the very last straw.)

And for Greens? They have increased lines of communication, extended their network, gained useful feedback, and provided themselves with an avenue of more feedback. I've already been in a position to do them a favour, and did. And the next time I was asked for my opinion of Greens, my response was very different from what it had been. And to what it would have been if they had just brushed off my complaint.

There is - or rather can be - a wealth of gold in customer complaints. But only if you look for it.