Fast Company

Complaints: The First Step In Innovation?

Complaints are a first step to innovation. When your customers complain, they're sharing valuable knowledge with you about their unmet need. Knowledge that, if acted on properly, can guide your idea or innovation to the top.

How do complaints actually get turned into innovations that help companies achieve more and become worth more? Let's look at the business capabilities any agile organization needs to adopt to make this happn.

Using service brands as an example, companies in this space need the following capabilities. More importantly, they need these capabilities to work well together.

·         Listening

·         Dispatching

·         Doing

·         Communicating

·         Reporting

The listening capability should extend in some fashion to all customer touchpoints (call center, billing center, web, office, drive-through (if a restaurant), shop floor (if an auto repair shop), etc.). Ideally, customer complaints are captured closed in time and place to their point of origin.

The dispatching capability should take the input from listening and commit the organization's resources to solving the problem/complaint or addressing the opportunity/challenge according to a prioritized schema with some latitude for individual initiative. One of the valuable challenges to overcome in a service business is that the organizational structure doesn't often allow one part of the company to 'drive' another--even if it results in a better customer experience.

The doing capability must respond to the complaint (really, a client request for service that matches the expectations the very brand they are buying from gives them) in a manner that's affordable for the company and suits the customer's needs. For the doing capability to work, it must have permission from the top of the organization and from its department leaders and bean counters. Without it, the individual asking for the doing to happen meets too much resistance. It's interesting as a side note that capturing HOW these requests from the customer (aka complaints) are met provides interesting insight into quality of operations and sometimes provides useful insights into new ways that customers use what we do.

Communicating is one of the most overlooked and most important capabilities. Simply providing feedback to the customer who had a complaint often helps abate the negative feelings they have (and the bad word of mouth 'advertising' that often brings). Going the extra mile to make sure, after the solution has been presented, that the customer is still happy goes a long way to restoring that individual customer's faith in the brand. Communicating internally to show how <name of employee/hero> went out of their way to get the right thing done for the customer (and used company resources wisely to do it) starts to turn the internal conversation on 'what matters' in a healthy direction.

Reporting is best considered, in my opinion, as a lateral tool that helps coordinate the actions of departments that haven't or don't usually work with each other often to provide transparency into the sacrifices each must make to meet customer requests. Recognizing discrete events as patterns early (anticipation is another valuable capability) helps organizations to make the cross-departmental handling of 'complaints' routine so that, in the future, they simply become the regular way of providing service.

Taken to the next level, what was once a complaint may become an excellent customer experience, perhaps even a differentiator that leads to sustainable advantage.

So, listen carefully to complaints. They are your friend--and they're worth their weight in gold!

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