Cash In On Complaints (written December, 2004)

Welcome complaints? Thank your customers for them? Most business owners wish complainers would keep quiet or, better yet, go away. Complainers are no fun. They can ruin your whole day, and they take time away from selling and making money.

However, don’t assume that a complaint is an isolated occurrence that you’re better off ignoring. Big companies take negative correspondence and calls seriously. They assume that every letter or call represents many more people who feel the same way. Some large organizations even have toll-free 800 numbers to solicit feedback.

Remember, most customers don’t complain. But you’d better listen to the ones who do. If you have a small business with 200 customers and one complains, it might mean that you have 10 or 20 customers who are dissatisfied about the same thing. One study by the department of consumer affairs and general motors shows that over 70 percent of customers with service problems do not complain. This means that the few who complain are telling you something important, something you can cash in on.

How can you cash in on complaints?

  1. First, probe. Find out what the person is complaining about. Is there something the person didn’t understand that requires further explaining? Note that not every complaint is direct. A customer may simply say that they can’t read the directions on the product. Find out why. Is the type too small? Does she need someone to explain what the words mean? A customer who hasn’t bought anything in a while may be harboring a complaint you don’t know about. Make a follow up call to find out who isn’t buying and why.
  2. Get the feedback. Ask for feedback from other customers. Start asking customers who never complain. You might say: “we’re trying to improve your service and would like to ask you if you’ve been happy with it in the past.” find out, can they read the directions? Do they need better directions? Are orders arriving when they expect them? Are the packages in good shape?
  1. Develop systems to get feedback. Half a sheet of paper asking people how they like the product or service can be one way. So can a postcard that you enclose with the product. Another way can be for you or your staff to ask the customer in a follow up call. If you have a retail establishment, a suggestion box can be a good idea. Use your feedback system, too, to find new and more efficient ways to use your product or service. Find out, too, what related products or services your customers would be interested in. Let your people know that the door is open, that you want to hear from them and will listen to what they have to say. If you’re not pleasing your customers most of the time, your “open door” policy will.
  1. Look for solutions. If customers are having a hard time reading the directions, make it easier for them. Maybe you need to have the directions copied in larger type, or enlarged with a photocopier. Or perhaps you need a diagram or an illustration instead or in addition to verbal directions. Consider finding another way of shipping the product. If its drop shipped, discuss this with the supplier. When customers ask to have a product replaced or to have their money refunded, make sure you understand the problem. Then, if possible, give them what they want. Do it with pride, not grudgingly. Show that you stand behind what you’re selling. Note that when you solve a problem for one or more customers, you’ve won them a second time, and they may be far more loyal now than they were before. By listening carefully to complaints, however, you’re not just helping a few customers with a few problems. You’re looking for ways to improve your product and your service. You’re paving the way for smoother sales in the future.
  1. Don’t let negative comments ruin your day! Some of the comments you hear have nothing to do with the way you run your business. Certain individuals always say something negative. It’s their way of dealing with the world, and people who know them will learn to ignore them. Remember too, the complaints that you can’t ignore are about your product, your service or your business: they’re not about you. Things that go wrong in your business don’t make you a bad or a dishonest or an unreliable person. Hearing complaints gives you an opportunity to fix things and provide greater customer satisfaction. Take a positive attitude about complaints. They can actually increase your sales!

The author of this article is Larry Costello, President of All-American Print & Mail, 2200 Wilson Blvd #102-57, Arlington, VA 22201.