Given my recent MarketingProfs online seminar - Managing Your Reputation in a Social World - you can imagine how intrigued I was to receive an email from Guy in which he described how his book examines our "complaining psychology, its impact on how we complain as consumers (as well as in our relationships) and our interactions with the customer service industry." By the way, he's also a pyschologist who writes The Squeaky Wheel Blog for Psychology Today.
What struck me as I thought about complaints from the customer perspective is how most businesses focus on themselves when complaints happen. We readily forget how much effort - and angst - goes into making a complaint. Someone has to care intensely to invest the energy to complain and be heard. Imagine funneling all of that energy into creating productive outcomes...
Consider this interview with Guy, then, an opportunity to walk in our customers' shoes and figure out how to make the complaint process more constructive.
C.B.: Guy, what made you so passionate about the topic of customer complaints and making complaints more productive?
GW: As a psychologist who also has a private practice, I was always struck by how often patients would discuss consumer complaints, how frustrating they found them and how helpless they felt about tackling them. I would often coach them through it (when the issue/complaint was meaningful enough--I give several examples of this in my book) and was always amazed at the impact getting the matter resolved had on their self-esteem, mood and mental health. Of course, it is a similar issue with personal complaints (marital, familial, etc...)--people feel just as hopeless about being able to complain to a loved one and get a result.
So some years ago, I decided to look into the research about complaining and it was then I began to understand that what I was seeing in my practice and what my brother was seeing in his business was part of a much larger phenomenon that affected our complaining psychology as a whole--a general mindset of helplessness and hopelessness that impedes our quality of life in many ways. I decided to write a book about it to bring awareness, help people and companies take a look at these issues that affect them deeply, even if they don't realize it, and hopefully, to create change.
I hope that gives you a glimpse into my background and passion for the topic.
C.B.: How can consumers complain effectively?
GW: The most salient aspect of our complaining psychology today, especially as consumers, is the extent to which it is characterized by a defeatist attitude. When consumers are frustrated with a purchase, a store or a business and feel the urge to complain, they invest substantial time and effort in doing so—however they typically relate these complaints solely to friends and acquaintances and avoid directing them to the store or business in question. This prevents customers from getting the matter resolved and it denies companies the opportunity to take action and salvage their relationship with the customer.
Ironically, consumers avoid addressing their complaints to companies directly because they believe doing so will require too much effort. This despite the effort they invest in relaying their complaint to practically everyone else around them.
Therefore, to complain effectively, consumers must first learn to voice their dissatisfaction to the right people and second, they must overcome their fear and apprehension about the ‘complaining process’. Customers’ fear of unhelpful sales or service representatives creates a self-fulfilling prophecy because it makes them come across as suspicious and hostile to the representatives who are then put on the defensive and feel less motivated to help the customer resolve their problem.
GW: These days more and more companies monitor Twitter, Facebook and other social media for consumer complaints and those who do tend to respond to them extremely quickly. However, customers should use social media to get the company’s attention and request their help, not simply to flame them, or slam them. Tweeting “Help @Company! The shoes u sent are the wrong size. Wedding is in two days!” is far more productive than “@Company sucks! I’m never ordering from you again!”
C.B.: How can business turn customer complaints into valuable sources of insight?
GW: Businesses should educate employees down the ranks (especially frontline employees) about the value customer complaints provide to companies. First, complaints are a crucial source of information about potential problems with products, services or procedures that might be causing customer attrition in addition to customer dissatisfaction. Second, they provide companies an opportunity to perform service recoveries and engage customers in a dialogue while doing so. Companies that truly listen to their customers will find that customer complaints often provide valuable insights about customer needs and wishes that companies can them apply toward improving the customer experience.
C.B.: How should businesses proactively handle complaints?
GW: The most important things companies should do with complaining customers is allow them to voice their complaints fully and then provide them with authentic apologies, timely solutions to their problems and follow-ups to confirm they are indeed satisfied with the outcome. Customers whose complaints are well handled become even more loyal to the company than they were before they encountered a problem.
Further, the entire sequence of interaction around complaints and the dialogue it sets up, provides the company with numerous opportunities to educate and inform customers about products and programs as well as to upsell. Companies who do not provide successful complaint handling not only risk losing customers but having them provide negative word of mouth about the company as well.
The tricky part of our complaining psychology is that the results of most companies’ efforts often fall into a dichotomy. Customers are either extremely pleased with how their complaints were handled or they remain disappointed and frustrated. As consumers, we don’t have a huge middle ground when it comes to how we feel about a business once we voiced our complaint to them. Therefore, companies that want the best ROI should always strive to achieve excellent complaint handling practices rather than merely satisfactory ones.
C.B.: Thank you, Guy. You've certainly given me plenty to think about!
What's your perspective on customer complaints? Do you have success stories to share about customers who were particularly effective in voicing complaints and whose perspectives helped you come up with significant customer service improvements?
Guy Winch Ph.D. can be reached through is website at http://www.guywinch.com/ or on Twitter @GuyWinch. Also check out the Guy Winch blog and a recent article on Customer Service Manager titled, The 3 Things Complaining Customers Fear Most.