gift wrapped pkg brownWhen someone gives you a beautifully wrapped package, you say “thank you.”  We should also thank customers who complain; because their complaint is truly a “gift.”

What gift has the complaining customer given you?  Maybe it’s easier to see complaints as gifts by considering what the customer could have done instead of complaining:

  • The customer doesn’t complain but takes their business to your completion.
  • The customer talks to coworkers, family and friends about your business.
  • The customer posts their complaint on the internet (i.e. eBay, TripAdvisor, YELP, … )
  • The customer places 12’ x 20’ billboard on their lawn telling all passersby about how badly they were treated by your business.  (Saw this once in a backyard from an interstate exit.)
  • They could lodge a complaint with their mayor, governor or congressional representative.

A customer coming directly to you with a complaint really is giving you a gift.  And your business wants to receive as many of these gifts as possible.  That’s right, more complaints “gifts” are better.

Many businesses have set goals of “customer complaint reduction.”   Unfortunately, a business can reduce the number of complaints without increasing customer satisfaction.  How?  The head of British Airways (BA) described how his company reduced complaints by making it harder for customers to complain:

“We tried to make it difficult for the complainant by insisting telephone callers write in and by adhering strictly to a rule book that allowed us to tell customers that they were at fault by breaking a BA regulation which they weren’t even aware of.”

More organizations are realizing that they need to train every employee to recognize the “gift” of a customer complaint, know more about complaining customers, and have a process in place to resolve complaints quickly.

Seminal research on the value of welcoming and resolving customer complaints is found in A Complaint is A Gift authors Janelle Barlow and Claus Møller.   Their research identified  four distinct categories of gift-giving “complainers:”  Voicers, Passives, Irates and Activists.

Voicers, the “most desirable of dissatisfied customers…tell the organization when they have had bad experiences.” They will let you know how to improve services and products.   And, “they generally do not go out and tell a bunch of other people about bad service or products.” The ideal is to convert all unhappy customers into Voicers, and resolve their dissatisfaction promptly.  Voicers represent 37% of complainers.

Only 14% of complainers are Passives.  “A company can provide bad service or products to this group of non-complainers, and they will keep coming back … at least for a while.”   Passives are quiet, but undesirable.  They don’t give you a chance to fix their problems and will eventually quit doing business with you. But you never know why.  (They do tell their friends, coworkers, and neighbors.)

“The Irates are the most lethal of the four groups. In many cases, they will not say a word to the service provider or company. But they will tell lots of people about bad service and will stop buying.”  Irates, representing about 21% of complainers,  are empowered by the vast reach of the internet.

Activists  “may be seeking revenge while spreading the word of the company’s bad service to everyone and never again patronizing the company.”  (Note: A Voicer, who doesn’t feel treated fairly by the business, may turn into an Activist … Another reason to value Voicers.)  Activists represent  28% of complainers.

Often, a customer wraps the complaint gift in the emotions of frustration, irritation and defensiveness.  Learning to see past the emotional wrapping, and get to the important message inside, speeds up the complaint process. Most unresolved complaints are the result of a complaint process that does not:

  • Welcome complaints as gifts.
  • Provide training to all employees for complaint recovery.
  • Empower everyone in the organization to resolve complaints quickly.
  • Use complaints to improve products and  fix service breakdowns.

Customer complaints are gifts to your business. Encourage customers to complain by making your complaint process welcoming, positive, and FAST.  Resolve at least one complaint permanently everyday and watch your customer satisfaction thrive.

Jeri Mae Rowley, Speaker~Trainer~Saddle Maker’s Daughter, delights audiences with her unique brand of “Western Wit & Wisdom for the Workplace.” Visit her website