Learn To Communicate! (written June, 1996)

Improve your communication skills and you improve your company’s bottom line. Handling complaints started since the beginning of time. We’ve all heard about outrageous customer service, but how far do you really have to go?

Ideally, your customers will always be happy and they will bring you repeat business. In real life, some customers think you didn’t deliver your product or service quickly enough or maybe you shipped the wrong items. Other customers are simply the complaining type, no matter how much you try to please them.

How do you handle customer complaints? We’ve all heard about companies that offer outrageous customer service, but sometimes it’s financially difficult for small businesses to offer a “110 percent no hassle guarantee.” So what do you do when a client is unhappy? And what does “satisfaction guaranteed” mean anyway?

In general, it’s better to make customers happy than to simply refund their money and send them away. Chances are you don’t have their money yet anyway. They might be withholding payment while they gripe. Even if they did pay you, you still want them to be happy, because otherwise they might malign you to their friends, a lawyer or the Better Business Bureau.

So what do you do? If someone complains, respond promptly. If they leave a voice mail, call them back, even on the weekend. The same goes for e-mail.

Have your clients explain exactly why they are unhappy. Listen carefully without interrupting. Maybe they just want clarity. Try to get them to tell you specifically what went wrong. The clearer they are, the easier it will be for you to make good on your promise to them.

Even though it might be tempting to get defensive, don’t. Instead communicate to your clients that you intend to fix the problem. Make sure they know you are taking their situations seriously and that you intend to do everything you can do to make them happy. This level of personal attention might help calm them.

Don’t point to the contract and insist you were right, even if you were. Instead offer something that they will perceive as valuable. Some free product might help. Or offer to go back and redo the one detail that troubles them the most about your project. You can take the approach that the customers are always right, but that doesn’t mean they always get a refund. They likely just want a slightly different product from what they received.

You might lose some money by giving them something for free, but if they are happy they will return, spend more and tell their friends. (It’s the old customer retention versus finding new customers concept.)

To help improve customer service, keep track of complaints, even if there are very few so you can determine whether there is a pattern. This might prevent future complaints. It might also help you come up with ideas for new products or service.

Sometimes the clients are wrong and they demand something beyond what you promised. Then you have to be creative. Offer them solutions that don’t cost you much money and that they perceive as valuable. The idea is to make sure they are happy, so that they will patronize your business again. Offer them dollars off their next order or a free consultation about another topic.

Customers might be unhappy, but they don’t always say so. They engage only in small talk with you (instead of placing an order) or they simply stop contacting you. This could be an opportunity to start a conversation and to see what their complaints might be.

Sometimes non-customers complain. They don’t like the clever spelling of your product or they think your label looks too low budget. Talk to them, make a joke out of it and offer them a coupon towards their first order.

Finally, check with your attorney before you offer a money back guarantee, a warranty or other promises. You want to be sure your customers are happy, but you also want to make sure you are not legally offering more than you can deliver. It might be easier to continually show customers you will satisfy them than to come up with the right “no-quibble-unconditional-better-than-risk-free” slogan.

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