If you put one pot of boiling water and another pot of lukewarm water into your freezer at the same time, guess what happens? The boiling water will freeze first! This phenomenon has been known since the time of Aristotle, but apparently even today no one understands precisely why it happens. The U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry, in fact, recently put up a £1000 prize for the first person who can offer a satisfactory explanation.
Similar to freezing a pot of boiling water, companies can often turn the most vociferous of complainers into raving fans—brand advocates who are even more convinced in their positive views than other, more satisfied customers are. And this is a phenomenon that isn’t so hard to explain.
While rapid technological progress and rising levels of interactivity are clearly raising customer expectations in general, a complainer is someone whose expectations are, shall we say, downwardly mobile. If you feel a company has wronged you in some way, then you’ll be examining every new interaction with it for evidence to confirm this personal belief. (This is your confirmation bias at work. Don’t even bother trying to deny its existence.) As a result, something that might have begun as a flawed company policy of some kind, or an oversight or simple mistake by someone in the firm, could soon be interpreted by the complainer as bad intentions on the company’s part. And bad intentions constitute the most serious breach of trust possible.
Martha Rogers and I have written a great deal about the growing importance of customer trust in our technologically transparent world, and trust is largely a social concept. The trust a customers has in you reflects not just the customer’s own independent opinion, but also how the customer’s friends evaluate you. Even a single complainer’s dissatisfaction and distrust can soon infect a large number of others. So complainers, if left to their own devices, can do immense damage to the value of your overall customer franchise.
However, the mere fact that a complainer has already developed a particular point of view means that as soon as the company does something to contradict that point of view—reaching out to handle the complaint proactively, for instance, or apologizing sincerely and trying to make things right—its action has the potential to completely reverse the customer’s mindset, violating the customer’s expectations once again, but this time in a positive manner. The more a business contradicts the customer’s own pessimistic expectations, the more noticeable and memorable its initiative will be. When done right, like the boiling pot of water that freezes faster, a boiling complainer will often become a highly convinced brand advocate even faster than someone who never had a complaint to begin with.
You probably already know this to be true, simply from personal experience. But what it means for your company is that complaints, once they are voiced to you, are gifts for your bottom line. So when your company is fortunate enough to hear a complaint from a customer, your policies and employee training should support five simple actions:
- Acknowledge: Always begin by acknowledging the complaint and the complainer. Whether or not you think a complaint has merit, you have to start by granting the legitimacy of the complainer’s point of view. Empathy is a very powerful cure-all, but it must be displayed freely and without reservation on your part.
- Apologize: There’s no substitute for simply saying "we’re sorry." No ifs, ands, or buts—just plain old "sorry for this." As the complainer tells you what’s wrong from his or her perspective, apologize early and often. With feeling.
- Amplify: Probe for additional information about the complaint. As the complainer vents to you, and as you are acknowledging the complainer’s problem and apologizing for the inconvenience or for whatever other injury the customer incurred, keep asking if there is anything more—any further dissatisfaction that has not yet been voiced. Get it all out.
- Ask: Once the problem has been fully exposed—when the complainer says there isn’t anything more—you should ask the single most important question: What does the customer think would be a fair and satisfactory resolution? How can your company remedy the injury?
- Act: Then, if it’s at all possible, do what the customer has just told you would be fair.
[Image: Flickr user Susy Morris]