Over the years I’ve been in the fortunate position of dealing with an untold number of customer complaints the vast majority of which have been progressed to a satisfactory conclusion, and resulted in the customer remaining with the company for many years after the original complaint was dealt with.
Although somewhat of a cliché, a complaint from a customer shouldn’t be feared or avoided but should be faced head on and dealt with, they offer a tremendous learning opportunity both on a personal and business level.
Below are my top ten steps for dealing with complex customer complaints, the time-scale between each step depends upon the complexity of the complaint as does the resolution that you need to put in place, it could range from hours to months.
1. Acknowledgement & Ownership
Acknowledge with the customer that you have received their complaint as soon as possible, don’t let it sit on your desk and if at all possible make sure that this is done via a telephone call. Don’t use email unless it is to confirm the telephone conversation, and to thank them for their time. This initial phase is the most important in moving the issue to conclusion. During your initial telephone call you set the whole tone and manner under which the complaint is to be dealt with. Use this stage to build rapport with the customer, explain that you are personally going to take responsibility and ownership for this issue and will be the point of contact throughout, make sure they have your contact details.
At this stage you can also go through the problem in detail obtaining as much information as possible, or arrange another time to do so if it is not convenient for the customer. Before terminating the call make sure you have set the clients expectations as to when you will next contact them. At this stage make no promises regarding any resolution, this is purely a fact finding and introduction. Making promises relating to resolutions at this stage can make the situation worse, you only have one side of the story, have no detail on availability of resources to deliver the solution, and don’t even have a proposal to put in front of the customer.
Now you have the information from the customer clarify the situation with internal stakeholders and colleagues, find out who was involved and speak to them all, try to get as a complete picture as possible. Remember this isn’t a witch hunt and should be done openly and honestly in an attempt to gather all the necessary facts to move the situation forwards to a mutually agreeable resolution. If you put people under pressure or play the blame game you are unlikely to get the full story and risk making the situation worse with the customer and build resentment internally.
At this stage you may have some gaps between customer perception of the problem and what your are being told internally, this is normal these can be clarified with the customer upon your next phone call to determine the outcome they would like to see.
3. Determine The Outcome
By this stage you should have an almost complete understanding of the issue, bar one or two gaps which you will have the opportunity to discuss whilst agreeing the desired outcome for the customer. Put a call into the customer go over the issue once more, using the information that you have also gathered internally and discuss any gaps in understanding surrounding the complaint clarifying these where necessary. Discuss the desired outcome with the customer along with time-scales, and deliverables. Agree on key points of resolution, are these to be delivered over a period of time or all at once, if there are multiple deliverables what ones are the most important?
You should now have enough information to put together a statement of intent, this should cover the complaint in detail and the desired outcome as far as the customer is concerned. Advise the customer that a definite plan of action will be produced over an agreed period of time, depending on the complexity of the issue. It should be noted that a complaint covering several deliverables may need to be split down to those that are critical in nature and require immediate action to avoid unnecessary delays in productivity to the customers business. Discuss this fully with the customer if the time-scales for resolution are looking prohibitively long.
4. The Plan Of Action
With a full understanding of the issues and the customers wishes relating to the conclusion of the complaint you now have enough information to draw up a draft plan of action covering the deliverables required to resolve the complaint, and the time-scales that you have to deliver these to the customer. It is vital at this point that you have a round table meeting with all those internal stake holders who will be working to implement the solution to the customer. Remember, that this group of people may not be the same people as those who you spoke to in gathering the information surrounding the initial complaint. It may therefore be necessary to review the initial complaint with them prior to go through the draft plan of action.
You will need to iron out any flaws in the plan with regard to time-scales involved, or the deliverables themselves. It may not always be immediately possible to deliver items when they need to be delivered or without authorising and putting in place extra resources to cover the work needed. It may be necessary to negotiate with the customer, it may be that other items can be brought forwards, whilst allowing others to be put back.
This can be the most difficult part of the process, agreeing an effective plan of action that meets everyone’s requirements can be difficult and movement is required by all parties although mostly by the company rather than the customer. Don’t be tempted into promising something that you cannot deliver it will make the situation worse, and remember you have promised to take ownership of this issue with the customer.
Where revenue streams are put at risk due to the complaint the resumption of payment terms and conditions need to be addressed in the plan of action to avoid damaging what would otherwise be a successful resolution of the complaint.
5. Draft Plan Sign Off
Once the draft plan has been agreed by internal stakeholders and the customer you must get sign off by all parties involved. This sign off isn’t a way of trapping the customer, or internal stakeholders it sets the expectations as to what is going to be delivered, by whom, and when. It’s a positive step an gives all you and the customer the assurance that an agreed solution is going to be delivered at an agreed time-scale. An email from the customer agreeing to the plan should be seen as an effective sign-off.
6. Put The Plan Into Action
At this stage you have everything planned to deliver the required solution to the customer, but it is doomed to fail if you don’t drive the plan from the front. You need to have regular meetings and one-to-one’s with those carrying out the required work that will result in the successful execution of the plan. If you don’t do this other priorities will soon arise and focus on delivering the plan will drift. The customer should be regularly contacted throughout this process as previously agreed. It is vital that any deviation from the plan is immediately highlighted and where this cannot be rectified communicated with the customer and discussed to reach an amicable outcome.
7. Resolution Sign Off
Bar one or two minor hiccups by the time you reach this stage your plan of action to resolve the complaint should have been deployed to the customer. This needs to be reviewed with them with an official sign off to confirm that this is the case. Note that any financial penalties, or resumption of revenue streams should have been contained in the action plan as already discussed, so this should not be an issue at this stage.
8. Lessons Learnt
So you are probably feeling fairly pleased at the moment, and its tempting for everybody to go about their daily business as normal and try to put this whole episode behind them. However it is vital that you look back and learn from this complaint to see what could have been done differently to avoid it occurring in the first place.
Its important to include the personnel you spoke to in the analysis phase and also those who carried out the work to resolve the problem (and sometimes the customer). The impact of a complaint on normal business cannot be overstated, not only are valuable resources involved in getting to the bottom of the core issues, but also the other projects that can be delayed whilst the complaint is dealt with. Go through the complaint in detail via a round table discussion and pinpoint the areas of failure and what needs to be done in the future to avoid the same failures do not occur again. This is really the positive that you as a business can take from a complaint and will only enhance the services that you provide to your customers.
9. Special Care
Don’t disengage with the customer just because the solution to their complaint has been delivered, regular calls or visits to the customer are a must to rebuild trust and the relationship. These should be fairly frequent at first, gradually trailing off over a period of time that is relative to the severity of the complaint. Time is a great healer, but can be helped if the customer feels that they are getting the attention they deserve.
10. Normal Relationships
Depending on the nature of the complaint and after a period of special care it may be that the customer can return to a normal care or normal relationship status, however, in my experience this rarely happens especially where the impact of the complaint has been severe.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have had instances in the past where relationships appeared unsalvageable but ultimately the trust built up over the dealing of the complaint resulted in a much closer and somewhat healthier relationship with the customer. A special relationship can evolve and the customer became a key strategic partner when developing new business ideas, products or strategies.
Dealing with customer complaints isn’t something that comes naturally to most people and needs a lot of experience to be able to negotiate a reasonable settlement to a problem. Solutions have to be delivered that are commercially sound for both the customer and yourself.
Alternatively, on occasion it can be difficult, time consuming and costly to get a complaint that you have resolved to your satisfaction.
If you would like to discuss any service issues that you may have in relation to above or provision of customer service in general please don’t hesitate to contact me whereupon I will be more than happy to assist wherever I am able.