For All the Good of Complaining

Writing a complaint is never fun, but have you ever stopped to consider all the good it might do for the recipient of your feedback? I’ve already mentioned the benefits of constructive feedback in my previous article Are You Ready to Receive Constructive Feedback from Your Boss? but what is there to say about external sources of feedback that might not at first seem palatable?

To give context to this piece: the inspiration came from a complaint I encouraged my son to make after he received poor customer service from a major international airline whilst returning to the UK after visiting the wife and I for the Christmas break. He was initially reluctant to do so, but I managed to talk him around to the idea because he realised what impact his message could potentially have. That’s because, when major corporations set aside the initial sour connotations of receiving less than positive feedback, complaints can become a spotlight for errors otherwise undetected, revealing where innovative steps can and should be made in a business’s functionality. If anything, the fact a customer has taken the time to complain is a blessing because, as Finkelman and Goland argue in their article The Case of the Complaining Customer, ‘For every complaint…there are 20 or more customers who leave quietly and unnoticed and thereby provide the organization with no opportunity to learn from its mistakes’[1].

Complaints aren’t, however, simply indicators for performance improvement. Responding to complaints in the right way can help maintain rapport with returning customers and ensure a reputation for quality in both product and service which will entice new customers; all of this will build your organisation an indomitable form of brand loyalty. In fact, it is reported for the airline industry that customers who feel they have had they complaint dealt with in a speedy and conscientious manner are ‘Willing to pay almost $20 more for a ticket on that airline in future’[2].

With all of this in mind, one might start wondering if their organisation is dealing with complaints in the best possible way. I think, from personal experience as well as through my research, the following three concepts are best focused on when incorporating new ideas into complaint resolution practice:

· Professionalism: Whether the complaint is being dealt with in person, via e-mail, via phone or through any other means, it is imperative that staff are operating in the most professional manner. The absolute easiest way to drive off a complaining consumer is to treat them in a less than respectful manner; thus staff need to listen and be attentive at all times: especially in times when the customer may not be as fair in the way that they approach the situation.

· Acknowledge the power of the benefit of the doubt: Some businesses assume customers can seem frivolous with their demands when registering their complaints, but can you really put a price on customer loyalty when the problem was with your business function in the first place? One can see examples of good will going a long way too: Absolute Games are said to have graciously dealt with one disgruntled patron by offering ‘Freebies’[3]to rectify a problem and this resulted in the person in question becoming ‘One of [their] most valuable customers, faithfully purchasing every day’[4].

· Apologise for any failure: More than anything, customers want to be treated like real people rather than figures in the business plan. This requires a company owning up to mistakes as a show of ‘Personal change, not a tool for interpersonal persuasion’[5]and reassuring customers that then can and will do better in the future. Customers should have expectations of action plans to rectify their problems clearly explained to them and also be made aware of what will be done in future to prevent such issues as a means to win back trust in a business’s ability to deliver.

Getting complaint resolution right often takes a lot of time and effort, but mistakes happen in business and you have to be prepared for those times when you need to step in and resolve such issues. Burying your head in the sand will not make problems go away and it should be appreciated when customers do take the time to help you find the best way to improve your service. To this end, I propose it is time to end the negative outlook on complaints: after all, failure is often considered to be the greatest teacher so we should all see complaints as opportunities to do better and make the most of them to build towards the future.


[1]Dan Finkelman and Tony Goland, The Case of the Complaining Customer, Harvard Business Review, (Boston: Harvard Business Publishing 1990). [2] Wayne Huang, John Mitchell, Carmel Dibner, Andrea Ruttenberg and Audrey Tripp, How Customer Service Can Turn Angry Customers into Loyal Ones, Harvard Business Review, (Boston: Harvard Business Publishing 2018). [3] No author, Eight Tips For Handling Customer Complaints Effectively, Forbes, (New York: Forbes Media, 2017). [4] Ibid. [5]Joseph Grenny, What a Real Apology Requires, Harvard Business Review, (Boston: Harvard Business Publishing 1990).