How to manage complaints effectively

Tim Aldred
Businesses that attract a high level of customer queries, or complaints, should consider setting up a customer service Twitter account

From thanking customers for feedback to encouraging positive reviews, here are three tips for small and medium-sized businesses on how to manage grievances.

Complaints are an inevitable part of doing business. Aside from being no fun to receive, if done publicly, they can damage a brand’s image. Learning how to manage complaints effectively can limit the damage, turning mistakes into opportunities and winning back unhappy customers.

With review sites and social media making it easier to complain, and the results more visible, companies are learning how to embrace complaints and use them to strengthen relationships with customers.

Encourage customers to complain

Toby Dicker, co-founder of The Chapel hairdressing salons, actively encourages disgruntled customers to air their grievances, so that he's given the opportunity to resolve problems.

“The British consumer tends not to complain,” he explains. “Instead, they speak with their feet and never come back. Worse, they might tell someone else what a terrible place it is or leave a negative review online.”

Once we receive a complaint, the first thing to do is thank them

Toby Dicker, The Chapel

A well-handled complaint will make a customer feel valued and instead of them feeling the need to vent to friends and social media followers, you can raise your brand in their eyes. Even if the individual never returns, the act of taking their complaint seriously means that they’re less likely to spread their negative experiences.

He acknowledges that not every individual is comfortable lodging a complaint face-to-face, so encourages customers to complete a satisfaction survey after their visit.

“Once we receive a complaint, the first thing that we do is thank them,” he says. “That sounds crazy, but their perception of whatever has happened is real to them and it’s hugely disarming to thank them for helping you to address a problem.”

After that, accept responsibility, apologise and do whatever you feel is required to fix the situation. The quicker, the better. Even if you feel the complaint is unfair, he says, acknowledge the situation and promise to discuss it internally at a senior level. Being defensive only inflames people.

“Having a strong customer focus and complaints procedure is possibly the most important thing that we do. I know that if we look after our retention statistics then everything looks after itself,” explains Mr Dicker.

Apologise, and mean it

Ben Cook, marketing director of JC Social Media, says that negative reviews on social media or review sites are unpleasant because they’re so visible. However, he adds that the very same tools that facilitate these complaints can also be used to improve customer service, as they allow you to engage directly with an individual.

Start by deciding what it is that the business is sorry for, state it publicly, and mean it, he advises. "Use your discretion and common sense.”

It might be tempting to offer a freebie to an unhappy customer, but doing this publicly could set a precedent, encouraging others to lodge complaints in the hope of similar rewards.

There is nothing worse than a business owner losing the plot in an argument over social media

Ben Cook, JC Social Media

Following the initial apology, make conversations private by asking for a phone number or email address. If reviews or comments are abusive, report them to the site owners. But don’t delete fair complaints posted to your own site; that will look like you have tried to cover them up and can hurt your reputation.

Improve your company’s online rating by encouraging happy customers to publish positive reviews. Just don’t be tempted to post fake ones – it’s obvious to spot and will make you look dishonest.

Businesses that attract a high level of customer queries, or complaints, should consider setting up a customer service Twitter account. This allows your main account to stay fun and positive, while the secondary account, overseen by more technical staff, can handle problems.

Above all else, stay cool. Negative reviews do happen, but it’s not the end of the world. Don’t post emotionally, use swear words or get personal, says Mr Cook. “There's nothing worse than a social media manager or business owner losing the plot in an argument over social media. It’s very unprofessional and terrible for brand perception.”

Don’t script your responses

PFP Energy is the top-ranked energy supplier by Citizens Advice and came second in the Which? survey of the Best Energy Firms 2017.

Managing director, Adrian Leaker, says that human interaction is a key part of the customer experience, which is why his company doesn’t use scripts for handling complaints. “Instead, we encourage open and honest conversations. Our staff are trained with a good knowledge of the industry and try to resolve issues within the first call on every occasion,” he says.

They also share issues that they have faced and dealt with across the entire team, to make sure that staff and internal processes improve and evolve to meet changing needs, he adds.

Wherever possible, PFP Energy ensures that complaints are handled by one team member to prevent customers being bounced around from advisor to advisor. Staff also manage expectations by ensuring that every customer understands how long it will take for their issue to be resolved. Hopefully, that’s within 24 hours, but if not, they get an explanation as to why.


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