How we train our customers to go to our competitors

Angry customer

A customer complaint is a favour

Customers complain about every business.

If we are lucky, customers complain to us.  Then we can put things right, help fix their problem and learn things which make our business better.

If we are not so lucky, our customers complain to their friends, or to people they meet, or to their followers on social media.  The result? Our reputation is damaged,  we  lose revenues and we open the door to competitors to show our customers how much better they are.

We train customers not to complain to us

Why don’t customers complain to us? Because we train them not to.

Huh?

Let me explain some of the ways we do so:

We make it hard to complain
Many organisations seem to do their damnedest to make it hard for customers to complain.  Typically we do this to save money.  Most of the time this is a false economy.  Some examples:

  • We don’t make it clear to customers how they should communicate with us.
  • We make it hard for customers to contact a real person.
  • We require customers to fill in forms.
  • We require them to have their account number / service id number / customer reference number before we can help them.
  • We make them wait on hold.
  • We push them to use email (which is slower) and hide our service telephone numbers.

All of these measures stop customers complaining. Result? They (and their sales revenues) go elsewhere.

We are slow to respond
We seemed to move fast enough when we were selling our product to the customer, didn’t we? So why don’t so many organisations respond as quickly to a complaint? Sure, we may have excuses:

  • Perhaps we don’t want to talk to them before we have sorted everything out.
  • Perhaps we are having trouble working out who should be dealing with the complaint.
  • Or, perhaps, we don’t know who in our organisation has the job of keeping the customer informed.

Customers don’t care why we’re slow.  They just want it fixed – NOW. If we don’t show the same sense of urgency as they are feeling, we are showing that we don’t care.

When a complaint disappears into a black hole, we cannot be surprised if we have lost the customer by the time the complaint emerges.

We respond in ways which do not respect the customer
(Warning: linked article contains profanity)

Customers making a complaint are unhappy.  They are often angry. Often, this is the fault of something we have done or failed to do.  And they have bought things from us in good faith.

At the very least, we should treat them with respect. What does respect for the customer look like?

  • It means listening to the customer; showing that we have heard them.
  • It means we don’t make them repeat themselves.
  • It means we keep our promises  – to look into their problem or to speak to a colleague, or to put it right.
  • It means we don’t make promises we can’t keep.

And, above all, it means treating the customer as a person, and treating them as we would want to be treated.

We treat the customer as a suspect
All too often customer services go wrong because they have been designed from the outset to treat the customer with suspicion.

The result is a customer experience based on one or more of these assumptions:

  • We haven’t made a mistake, you have.
    “No-one else has complained.”
  • Our products aren’t stupid, you are.
    The instruction on paragraph 6.4.2 of the user manual is quite clear: to restore the service you have to hold the product upside down and press reset button on the underside for between 4 and 7 seconds. You mean haven’t done that?
  • We think you’re trying to cheat us.
    Yes, I know that this is our product and it shouldn’t be broken like that, but unless you have your receipt we can’t help you“.
  • We think you’re lying.
    The system can’t crash like that. Are you sure that’s all you were doing?”

Occasionally, of course, customers do behave badly; but if we start from here, the experience we offer our unhappy customers is very likely to make them feel worse.

Even if we fix the problem, we are likely to lose the customer.

It is much better to think about helping customers on the assumption that they are correct and that they have a valid reason for complaint.

After all, something has  made them want to get in touch, so something about what we are doing must be wrong.

Moreover, a complaining customer is one who is engaged – isn’t that what most of our companies want? Engagement with the customer?

Why not begin instead by designing our service operation from the assumption that we want to help people?

Then, after we have done this, we can put in place some reasonable safeguards, just in case the problem really is on the customer side.

But let’s stop doing it the wrong way round.

Think afresh about complaints

We need to think about complaints differently.  A customer who complains is giving us a gift.

They are giving us another chance to get their custom; they are giving us a chance to restore – or maybe enhance – our reputation; and they are giving us a chance to learn from their experience to make things better for others.

It’s a gift we need to be better at taking.

(Image credit: Lythia Scott Eiler, US National Archive)

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