Are You Hearing Enough Complaints?

It's the gripes you don't hear about that hurt you most. So how do you find them?

One summer day a boy we'll call "Jimmy" entered a small town's hardware store and asked the proprietor, a successful local entrepreneur, if he could borrow the phone. "Sure," the man said. The entrepreneur couldn't help but overhear the boy's end of the conversation, which basically went like this: "Hello, Mrs. Wilson? My friend and I cut lawns for money all around town and I just wondered if you'd ever like us to cut yours?... So, someone already cuts your lawn? Well, are you happy with the job they're doing? Sure we couldn't take a crack at it ourselves?... OK, then, well, I'm glad you have someone you can depend on, and thanks for your time anyway."

With that, Jimmy put the phone down and headed back out of the store, but the entrepreneur felt sorry for him and wanted to coach him a bit. "Jimmy," he said, "you have wonderful, engaging style, and that was a really nice sales pitch just now. Very professional. But selling is a numbers game. I've built more than one business in my time, and one thing I know is you have to try again and again. If you called ten people just like her, I bet you'd be cutting two or three new lawns this very afternoon!"

The boy smiled somewhat shyly, and replied, "Actually, sir, I wasn't trying to sell Mrs. Wilson anything. The truth is, my friend and I already cut her lawn, and I just wanted to be sure she's happy with what we're doing." Then he excused himself, turned, and left to tend his business.

Question: Who is the smarter entrepreneur?

Jimmy was practicing something that Martha Rogers and I have called "complaint discovery." When it comes to customer loyalty, complaints and dissatisfaction are the single biggest affliction of any business. Research shows that customer loyalty is not highly correlated with customer satisfaction, but customer disloyalty is very highly correlated with customer dissatisfaction.

Rather than trying to surprise and delight customers with ever-increasing acts of heroic service, in other words, you might generate better financial results for your business if you just took even more care to redress problems, fix things that go wrong, and directly confront the problems that customers encounter.

In a recent post I listed five actions you can take when you interact with a complaining customer, in order to turn the complainer into an advocate. But what if a customer never voices his complaint to you? What if he only tells his friends, or family members, or work colleagues—or his Twitter followers? The average complainer tells nine or more others about his unhappy experience. So successfully resolving a complaint is not only likely to generate increased business from the complainer, but also to restore nine or more potentially lost opportunities with other customers or prospects. The point is, if you're not hearing any complaints this might be a reason to worry, rather than to congratulate yourself.

To maximize your own business success, and to keep your customers as loyal as possible, you need to ensure that you are able to address more and more complaints. It might sound perverse, but the more complaints you discover, the more opportunities you have to build your business. A few things you can do:

Make it easy to complain. Be sure to publicize both a toll-free number and an email address for complaints, in addition to making it a simple option on your web site. Give customers multiple avenues for voicing any problems. Monitor these channels 24-7. Outsource this function if you have to!
Monitor social media traffic for any mention of your brand, your product, or your business, and reach out immediately to complainers. Twitter has become the complaining channel of choice for many today, so don't let those complaints go untended. Better to respond within minutes, rather than hours, and letting a day or more go by is unacceptable.

Always get back to a complaining customer with a direct phone or email contact, rather than simply asking him to contact you with more detail, and then do get back to him, promptly.
In addition, be sure to ask permission to contact a customer a few days after any unusual or stressful transaction. Do not try to sell anything with this outreach, whether it is by email or phone. Just verify whether everything went OK, and ask how your company might have done anything better.

Don Peppers is a speaker, consultant, and co-author of Extreme Trust. Follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Nick Thompson]

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  • David

    I was on hold waiting to speak to a person at an airline with whom I have some gripes, and was delighted to hear that if I stayed on the line after the call, I could participate in a customer satisfaction survey. "Great" I thought "this is my chance to give them some meaningful feedback on the things that are really bothering me". The call was handled (a very straightforward transaction), and I proceeded to the satisfaction survey. "On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the best, did the person you just spoke to deal with your enquiry the way you wanted?" - or something along those lines. Yes they did - it was a simple, mechanical request and I pushed the appropriate number - 9 or something, and my pulse rate started to climb as I anticipated the delicious opportunity about to present itself. Imagine my incredulity when the mechanised voice thanked me for my feedback, and then cut me off. Somewhere out there, someone is probably getting a bonus for their great scores in customer satisfaction. But from my perspective, it just reinforced how totally dismissive this company is about what customers are really thinking. Bottom line: next time you hear from someone or a company what their customer satisfaction measures are, always wonder if this is true, or are they only hearing what they want to hear?

  • Susan

    Great article.  There are vendors out there, like the one I work for, newBrandAnalytics, that can help you manage and track these complaints and reply in a timely and organized fashion. We have customers who have replied to a complaint privately with dramatic positive results.  Like when a fan of restaurant complained about something she wished the server team would have handled but didn't she gave them 4 out of 5 stars on a social media review site.  When the restaurant team followed up she went back to her review and changed it to a 5 out of 5.  The customer centric approach works in spades.  

  • Amber King

    Excellent article Don. Complaints should never be taken as a negative thing but an opportunity to be better. A customer that complained took time and effort to inform you that something is lacking in your service.

    Agree Don that businesses should keep track of any complains online. With the growth of social media, more are more consumer turn to social sites to vent out their frustrations. It is important to be on alert so that you can address issues immediately.

  • Denysedd

    You are so right Don, complaints are a gift.
    When you realize that most companies hear on average only about 4% of people that have a complaint it would seem good business practice to at least surprise and delight them.
    Same goes for me on social media, which more people are using today to voice their criticism in public. When organisations like United or Nestlé get it wrong it makes you wonder is it arrogance or just a lack of interest in what their customers think about them. 

  • Don Peppers

    Good comments. Unfortunately, when companies (or managers) think of complaints as costs rather than as investment opportunities, they will in fact do things like artificially hold the volume of complaints down.  Or worse.  

    Yet complaints are like gifts.  A customer voluntarily reaches out and offers information that can be used not just to win more of his or her business, but to avoid losing other customers' business as well.  

  • Denysedd

    I agree Aflaude and I don't think many companies have realized this, even today.
    My favorite is when I hear "You call is important to us, please stay on the line" and then I hear some music until I hear the message again, and again - and again!
    No I guess we still have a long way to go still to make the vast majority of organisations really customer centric.

  • laude05

    Ever call the help number for a product and not get a "I'll report your complaint/problem" but an explanation or justification of why things are what they are? The company just missed the first step on improving their product or service. First contact employees short stoping reports of customer dissatisfaction cut your information pipeline.

  • Denysedd

    I hope lots of people read this and understand why it's invaluable to get as many complaints as possible. 
    In one of my previous jobs I was always struggling with R&D whose bonus was linked to reducing the numbers of complaints. In order to meet their numbers, they found creative ways to count complaints, which were only tallied when the product was returned for appropriate testing. This meant I found them working on the #3 complaint instead of the #1 reason consumers were calling us about!
    Thanks for this hopefully inspiring message to all QA and R&D people out there.