Reward The Complainers

How do I choose what to write about each week? Usually, stuff just pops into my head. But over the last few days my head has been “popped” by a “conspiracy of stuff.”

This particular “conspiracy of stuff” involves four conspirators, all of them steering me towards writing about how to handle customer complaints online.

Conspirator One. This is the stage setter. I’m involved in the pre-launch phase of a large site that will sell things. Naturally, during the course of receiving orders and shipping thousands of items, mistakes will occur and customer complaints will follow.

Before the first complaint arrives, we’d be smart to have a clear idea of how we should handle these complaints.

Conspirator Two. Recently there has been a lively debate on “Dealing with Abusive Customers” in the I-Sales Digest discussion list. (If you don’t subscribe to this, you may want to give it a try.)

I particularly liked a posting by Deidre Straughan who said, among other things, “The best way to handle an abusive customer is to respond very, very quickly. It’s amazing how forgiving people can be if you simply answer them politely and do your best to handle their complaint (however unreasonable) quickly.”

Conspirator Three. I have a good friend named Gerry Vervoort who has spent the last couple of decades handling the back-ends of a few major high street retailers. He knows about complaints and how to turn them into profits. (And he’s looking for more online clients.)

Here’s a quick quote from something he wrote to me a couple of days ago.

“In business when a customer complains, they’re not saying I will not do business with you anymore. They are simply saying I have a problem that needs to be addressed, and I am giving you a chance to keep me as a customer. Remember, a complaint is a window of opportunity to change a one-time customer into a regular customer or even a friend.”

Conspirator Four. Blockbuster Video. And this isn’t directly about customer complaints – but it is about taking a negative situation and creating a positive outcome. Blockbuster is not always my favorite company, but my local store recently won my admiration for life.

As always, my family and I had run up a late charge which we’d cunningly avoided paying by renting videos from a competing store. After a few weeks, Blockbuster sent us a letter requesting payment, which we ignored. Then they sent us a second letter with a passage highlighted in yellow.

I am an avid student of how companies deal with their customers when things go bad, so my eyes leapt straight to the highlighted section – fearing the worst A threat or something. But here’s what they said.

“Come by and settle your account by the end of the week and get one Latest Release video free.” Or words to that effect.

Smart people. They rewarded me in a way that cost them nothing but was of a high perceived value to me.

What does this have to do with customer complaints? Well, I agree with Deidre Straughan and my friend Gerry, but I’d go maybe one step further.

In addition to approaching customer complaints in a speedy and positive manner, perhaps we can recognize the contribution of “complainers” by rewarding them in some way.

First we’ll exclude the malicious and/or scamming complainers.

But after that, perhaps we could learn from how Blockbuster turned a negative into a positive. Perhaps we could offer our complainers something that is of high perceived value to them but is inexpensive or free for us.

And this isn’t just about the power of a freebie. This is an olive branch that says, “Whatever the reason things went wrong for you at our place of business, we regret the problem. We’d like to make your bad experience a little better by offering you this gift.”

Build this kind of response into your systems, and I think you’ll see many of your complainers turn into “praisers” and advocates for your company.

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