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GUEST COMMENT Navigating the changing culture of customer complaints

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Despite the traditional belief that the British are famous for a stiff upper lip and an ability to queue patiently, recent years have seen our lip soften and the culture for suffering in silence has, quite rightly, dissipated. We expect to receive exemplary service from the brands we engage with, and will complain if we don’t get it. According to figures from the first ever Consumer Action Monitor commissioned by the Ombudsman Service, more than two thirds of consumers (67%) say they are never or rarely prepared to put up with poor service without taking action, while a third (32%) say they are more likely to complain about poor service than a year ago.

While our likelihood to vent frustration after a bad experience with a brand is on the rise, the ways in which we will choose do it have evolved. In earlier days we would write a complaint letter to the company in question. This was then superseded by email: a faster media than the written, posted letter – but still a private exchange between the customer and business. But now social media is the platform we use to voice our dissatisfaction, publicly outing brands when they get it wrong. Now millions of unhappy consumers are taking to Twitter or Facebook as a way to gain a company’s attention, publicly sharing any and all of their less than satisfactory experiences.

So what impact can this changing landscape of complaints have on a brand? Not only do customers increasingly expect an immediate response and resolution when they take to Twitter (gone are the days where we’re happy to wait for a letter response), but the very public and transparent nature of social media means that bad news spreads like wildfire so customer service issues have potential to be significantly more damaging. Brands quite literally face public naming and shaming – clearly visible to existing and potential new customers – and must be prepared to deal with the fallout of consequential reputational damage.

Mistakes can happen, errors resulting in unhappy customers can often be unavoidable – but it is how complaints are handled and managed that matters most when it comes to retaining customers. If not handled well, it is very possible a precious customer can be turned away for good. To avoid this, the right customer service strategy and considered execution is imperative.

These are my top two pieces of advice brands should consider in order to thrive and survive given the changing landscape of complaints:

Act quickly and thoughtfully

Following an incident which leaves a customer dissatisfied, action must be taken quickly – ideally even before a customer has time to take to social media. By taking swift action, customers will recognise the goodwill and feel as though their voice is being heard. It is how effectively these situations are dealt with can make the difference between losing a customer or gaining an advocate.

However, if the complaint is aired, recognise that poorly handled – or even worse – ignored complaints are unacceptable. Unresolved complaints that are in the full view of the public eye won’t just lose you a current customer; it will turn off prospective customers too. Act as soon as possible and remedy the situation. Listen to the customer, explain why things went wrong – but also consider how the negative customer experience could be turned around to something more positive. For example, make the right gesture – be it gifting a voucher or flowers, or some other form of reward – to say ‘sorry’ at the right time. This can be a very quick and efficient way to apologise to customers when things go wrong, but also go a long way into changing the customer’s perception.

Remember the basics

More than two thirds of customers leave because of bad treatment they received whilst speaking to a customer service representative. It sounds obvious, but these employees are your frontline, so ensure the whole team is briefed – and regularly trained – on how to effectively and sensitively respond to, manage and rectify any complaints that arise. Also – be polite. Thank customers for drawing a bad customer service experience to your attention and reward loyal customers who come back after this experience. It not only portrays the company as thoughtful and attentive, but can pay significant dividends in the long run.

Vikki Zelkin is head of client services, promotions and incentives at The Grass Roots Group

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