Now that so much business is done on line enterprises often have very little face to face or even telephone contact with customers. The problem of faceless customer relations began with mail order and was already being exacerbated by the growth of call centres. The opportunity to understand customer needs through informal conversation has all but disappeared.
Solidus has long argued that complaints are the last real opportunity for such contact but the potential benefits are being squandered by rigid processes, scripted responses and even dehumanised e-mail and web-based systems.
It is often said that a customer with a complaint about a supplier spreads that news widely and rapidly so that within 24 hours most of their immediate friends and family are aware of it. If the complaint is not dealt with quickly and effectively the complainant rapidly becomes a “product terrorist” and is actively damaging the expensively developed brand. Even worse are the customers who never complain and move directly to “product terrorism” telling all and sundry how bad the supplier is. With the advent of internet forums and social media they do not just tell their friends and family, it can go global, instantly. A brand is soon damaged.
However, the reverse can be the case. Sort out a customer’s problem quickly and effectively and she will use the same channels to sing the supplier’s praises. Furthermore, the complaint provides a reason to contact the customer and talk to them, an opportunity to really understand what the client really thinks of the product, the company and what they associate with the brand. Satisfied customers do not, usually, contact the supplier as they have simply received the product or service they expected when they made the purchase; there should be nothing noteworthy in that.
So complaints are probably the last opportunity to “wow” the customer and to understand their view of the business. Unless complaints are disproportionately frequent, in which case there are other problems to fix, they should be welcomed as an opportunity to engage with customers and enhance the brand’s reputation.
Whenever we discussed this during a national service improvement programme for a major retail bank it was sometimes suggested that easily resolved complaints should be created to create customer engagement. It was tongue in cheek, no one was actually that cynical; in actual fact it would not work as for every complainant there are many more dissatisfied customers who will just grumble or, worse, become “product terrorists”. But it showed how the idea of complaints as opportunity had struck home; the bank picked up on it and empowered the branches to deal with complaints locally.