It's odd to think of complaints
as customer satisfaction tools. After all, they indicate
the polar opposite of customer satisfaction, don't they?
But that's exactly the point: An effective complaint system
is your customer satisfaction warning signal. Imagine a
big red light mounted on the wall of your conference room.
When a customer complains, the light blinks a glaring shade
of crimson as a deafening buzzer blares. This is how your
complaint system should function.
Complaints communicate customer perceptions, and perceptions
compose the largest determinant of customer satisfaction.
Unfortunately, however, complaint systems are completely
reactive: You're not reaching out to your customer--you're
relying on the customer to reach out to you. This is a risky
proposition. Many customers simply aren't going to take
the time to lodge a complaint. They may believe their time
is too valuable, might not have confidence in your ability
to solve the problem, have decided to take their business
elsewhere or have a hundred other reasons not to complain.
For every complaint your organization receives, there may
be four or five others you'll never know about.
Because of its reactive nature, a complaint system should
be used in combination with one or two proactive tools.
These extend an organization's tentacles deep into the environment,
while the complaint system acts as the last line of defense.
If the proactive systems are effective, you'll hear about
many issues long before they escalate to a complaint. But
the complaint system will still exist--a monolith guarding
the entrance to your customer satisfaction realm.
An effective complaint system must be easily accessible
to your customers. A single toll-free phone number is typically
the best mode of contact, even if your organization is a
large multifacility company. Don't confuse your customers
with instructions such as: "If you're calling about
our outdoor recreation products, dial the Chuckamucka facility.
If you're calling about our watercraft products, dial the
Provide one phone number for complaints, and make sure
it's posted prominently in multiple places (e.g., the user's
manual, the assembly guide, the packing list, the exterior
box, the invoice or the thank you note). Make it clear to
even the most casual observers how to call if they have
a problem. Don't fret that you're treating your customers
like children. They want to be treated like children, at
least in terms of getting in touch with you easily.
Customers stand a significant chance of becoming irritated
when they call to complain. Don't put them on hold or send
them into voice mail. They'll only become more irritated,
and this will hamper their ability to communicate the details
of their problems. Establish whatever staffing or infrastructure
is necessary so that customers can speak to a real person.
It's a good investment.
Another communication faux pas is transferring a customer
from one telephone extension to another. The first point
of contact should be adequately trained and have the necessary
tools for soliciting and recording the complaint's details.
If the employee isn't able to carry out the task, take whatever
action is necessary so that it can be carried out. Practicing
complaint calls raises an employee's confidence and facilitates
his or her ability to deal with the customer.
Although other communication media such as faxes, e-mails
or Web forms can function as first points of contact for
complaints, voice contact is still the best. Customers with
complaints want to talk to someone, and fast. Speaking directly
with a human provides assurance that the problem will be
solved and everything will turn out OK.
Empathy is an important part of dealing with customers
who have complaints. What exactly does empathy mean? Simply
that the person talking to the customer understands the
situation from the customer's point of view. He or she understands
why the customer might be upset, is able to share some of
the same feelings and lets the customer know that he or
she would probably feel the same way.
Is it appropriate to express regret because of the problem?
Sure. The customer has experienced something unpleasant,
and it only makes sense to say you're sorry about it. Saying,
"I regret you had this problem" isn't a confession
of guilt. You're merely saying what one friend or business
partner would say to another when something goes wrong.
However, the organization's representative should stay away
from any talk about guilt or fault-finding.
Empathy allows the customer to feel that he or she isn't
alone in the situation. The customer has an ally of sorts,
an advocate. Creating this feeling in the customer is critical
to defusing any anger or ill feelings the customer may possess.
Empathy is also the first step toward turning the negative
experience of the complaint into a positive one and ultimately
rebuilding the customer satisfaction that might have been
Obviously, the more upset and emotional a customer is,
the more empathy will need to be applied to the situation.
Everybody's communication style is different, but the essential
message that most customers must hear is this:
I can certainly understand how you feel about this situation.
We regret that you were inconvenienced.
We'll investigate this problem as quickly as possible and
let you know what we learn.
In addition to expressing empathy, the person receiving
the complaint must gather the details. Exactly what went
wrong? Allow the customer to provide a general description,
then begin to sharpen the particulars. Typical information
includes the following details:
What was the exact nature of the problem? Generalities won't
cut it. The problem statement must provide enough detail
and depth to facilitate investigation.
When did the problem occur? The date is certainly necessary,
as might also be the time.
Where did the problem occur? The state, city, plant, retail
outlet, department, production line and machine all might
Who were involved in the situation? What roles did they
What product was involved? What were the part or style numbers?
Were there any specific batch numbers, serial numbers or
other identifiers that provide traceability?
Was the problem isolated or generalized across all products?
Consistently gathering this breadth of information is
difficult without a structured form. Most organizations
custom-design complaint forms based on their individual
needs. Decide exactly what information you need to investigate
customer complaints and take effective action; then design
your form around these needs. Certain sections of the complaint
form are almost universal, including:
The person to whom the complaint is assigned
The response due date
The root cause
The action taken
A verification of action taken
A closure signature and date
Also make sure to include proof of follow-up communication
with the customer as one of the requirements of the form,
if that's something your organization elects to do (it's
a very good idea).
Each complaint should be assigned to a project manager
whose job it is to assemble the necessary resources and
ensure that all phases of the problem-solving process are
carried out. This individual should have the project management
skills to ensure that the correct people are involved and
that they have the proper tools to address the problem.
The project manager should also have the authority to remove
barriers and motivate action. The space on the complaint
report labeled "assigned to" is usually where
this manager is designated.
This might sound a little overblown to some people. After
all, we're just talking about a customer complaint, right?
Yes, but a customer complaint can be a very complicated
affair. Consider all the steps that constitute a response
to a typical customer complaint:
Clearly defining the problem
Identifying the root cause
Proposing a range of acceptable corrective action
Choosing the action
Implementing the action
Following up to ensure the action was effective
Reporting the action and results back to the customer
Updating procedures and other documentation as necessary
to reflect changed methods
More steps could be added, depending on the nature of
the complaint; complex projects require a project manager.
Think about the effective and ineffective corrective actions
you've been a party to. One of the keys to the effective
action most likely was assigning someone responsible for
driving the project through to completion, i.e., a project
Effective project management of customer complaints includes
at least three distinctive hallmarks:
Clear assignment of ownership for each complaint
A defined problem-solving method. This is a logical step-by-step
process for addressing the problem in a lasting way. The
eight steps previously outlined constitute a problem-solving
Involvement of a wide range of personnel. It goes without
saying that managers don't have all the answers. Organizations
must use all their available creativity and intellect when
customers complain. Executives, managers, supervisors, operators,
trainers, technicians, administrators and troublemakers
could all be drawn into the problem-solving process.
Like a fire alarm, the best complaint systems swing the
entire organization into action. The more people involved
in the complaint investigation, action and follow-up, the
more likely it is the organization will learn from the experience
and not repeat the same mistakes. Team-based problem solving
is a particularly effective tool for getting personnel involved.
This doesn't necessarily mean decision making by committee,
which is usually a disaster. It simply means that a wide
range of people are contributing.
The overall management of the complaint system should
be assigned to a complaint administrator. This person has
a number of important responsibilities:
Supervising the input of information into the complaint
Routing the complaint form to the appropriate project manager
Ensuring that fields in the complaint database are updated
as investigation and action proceed
Escalating the complaint when investigation and action aren't
proceeding according to plan
Organizations have a habit of assigning the role of complaint
administrator to someone with very little real authority.
This is a mistake because it may be misinterpreted as an
indicator of how inconsequential the customer complaint
system really is. The role of complaint administrator is
a big one, and its assignment shouldn't be taken lightly.
Complaint management software can facilitate the tracking
and analysis of complaints significantly. The software's
complexity and sophistication is meaningless; the important
thing is that the person managing the complaint system can
determine the status of all complaints at a glance and easily
convert raw data into graphics.
Many complaint management software packages can be bought
off the shelf, and many of these are effective. It's often
much cheaper and easier, though, for the organization to
develop its own software tools. A complaint database can
be developed in a matter of minutes using relational database
or spreadsheet software. Complaint databases typically include
fields for most of the spaces found on the complaint form.
It's also a good idea to put the complaint database on a
server, with read-only access granted to the organization
as a whole.
Some organizations have decided that it's a good idea
to classify complaints according to whether they are "justified."
This makes logical sense, but it's the worst thing a company
can do for building customer satisfaction. If I'm a customer,
all my complaints are justified. Why else would I bother
complaining? If you try to tell me that my complaint is
"unjustified," it's only going to make me angrier
than I already am.
Once the customer experiences a problem, it becomes the
company's problem. Regardless of the fault of the problem,
customer satisfaction has been affected, and action must
be taken. Consider these scenarios:
The customer used the product incorrectly, and the performance
was adversely affected; the complaint is deemed unjustified.
But why did the customer use the product incorrectly? Was
the application known prior to the sale? Were the instructions
unclear? Is there any chance that the customer was misled,
The customer says the product was damaged, but the type
of damage described could only have happened at the customer
location; the complaint is deemed unjustified. But should
the product's packaging be improved? Should you provide
guidelines for proper handling?
The customer said the shipment arrived late, but he or she
selected the carrier; the complaint is deemed unjustified.
But should you stipulate longer lead times when this carrier
is used? Should you offer to contact the carrier on the
customer's behalf? Should you assist the customer in selecting
The customer said the service person was rude, but the truth
is that he was provoked by one of the customer's employees;
the complaint is deemed unjustified. But should you provide
your personnel training in dealing with difficult people?
Should you coach your employees in conflict resolution?
In each of these cases, an argument could be made that
the problem was the customer's fault. Taking this position,
though, does nothing to enhance customer satisfaction, nor
does it further the organization's long-term objectives.
Savvy organizations will look for ways to error-proof their
products with customers.
Of course, some problems are truly the customer's fault.
When these situations occur, the organization might not
be obligated to replace the product, provide credits or
refunds, or accept returns. In all cases, however, customers
must be treated in a diplomatic, cordial manner.
Humans are naturally curious. If you give someone feedback,
it's difficult to refrain from wondering what the person
does with it. This is especially the case with negative
feedback based on a purchased product. Customers want to
know what action has been taken. After all, the customers
had a negative experience related to something they spent
their hard-earned money on. They even took the time to tell
the organization about it. Now they're curious. What are
you going to do about it?
If your organization is interested in turning the negative
experience into a positive one, someone must take the time
to report back to the customer. The communication should
include three key elements:
The results of the investigation into the problem
The action taken
A statement of thanks for reporting the problem
Reporting action back to the customer closes the loop
on the issue. It also lets the customer know that you take
his or her feedback seriously and are committed to making
improvements. In some cases, it can determine whether your
organization remains a supplier to this customer.
The following steps represent implementation guidelines
for an effective complaint system:
Determine what information is needed in order to investigate
and take action on customer complaints. Build your complaint
form around this information.
Establish contact methods for customer complaints. Remember
that voice contact is preferred by most customers. Test
the contact method in various situations to ensure it works.
Develop a written procedure for how complaints will be handled.
Stipulate responsibilities, authorities, protocols and problem-solving
steps, as appropriate.
Appoint someone as the complaint administrator. This person
will be responsible for inputting information into the complaint
database and routing the form for investigation and action.
Educate the customer on how to contact the organization
in the event of a complaint.
Train all employees in their roles within the customer complaint
When a complaint occurs, use structured problem-solving
techniques to address them in a systematic manner (Refer
to the article, "Six Fundamentals of Effective Problem
Solving," Quality Digest, September 2002).
Complaint information should be one of the most widely
disseminated topics in an organization. Trend data should
be posted on every departmental bulletin board, along with
the details of relevant complaints involving that department.
Complaints, their root causes and eventual corrective action
must be made topics of any regular communication that takes
place throughout the organization.
Top management should be the most knowledgeable about
complaints. Business review meetings should include a discussion
of complaints as one of the primary agenda topics. Top management
should aggressively review progress on determining root
causes and taking effective action. When this happens, the
effectiveness of the overall complaint system increases
significantly and customer satisfaction stands a chance
of being salvaged.
Craig Cochran is a project manager with the Center for
International Standards & Quality, which is part of
Georgia Tech's Economic Development Institute. Cochran is
certified as a QMS lead auditor by the RAB. CISQ can be
reached at (800) 859-0968 or on the Web at www.cisq.gatech.edu.
Comments about this article can be sent to email@example.com.
This article was excerpted from Cochran's book, Customer
Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques, and Formulas for Success,
which is available from Paton Press (www.patonpress.com).