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.
[Image: Flickr user Nick Thompson ]