Serving Up Satisfaction

Eight service tips for effectively handling customer complaints at retail.

By John Lofstock, Editor.

A lot of retail best—and worst—practices can be found simply by observing what others are doing. Spirit Airlines recently flew into a big public relations disaster. Sticking to a no-refunds policy, the airline refused to refund the airfare of a passenger who had to cancel his trip after finding out he has terminal cancer. The incident unearthed earlier cases of Spirit’s difficulty handling customer complaints.

A couple of years ago, Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza hit “Reply All” on an email from two customers who had missed a concert due to a delayed flight. Essentially, he told his employees and (accidentally) the customers themselves that Spirit Airlines didn’t owe the customers anything and the customers would be back the next time they wanted low airfare.

These examples, according to retail expert Ron Kaufman, are proof of just how tricky it can be to properly
navigate some customer complaints.

“Spirit Airlines has a policy and they’re sticking to it,” said Kaufman, author of the new book “Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet.” “That seems to be how the company chooses to handle customer complaints. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, that approach might not be what’s best for business. When any company receives a complaint, it essentially has two choices. One, treat the complaining customer like they’re a pain in the neck. Or two, appreciate each complaining customer and use the complaint as an opportunity to improve.”

The Bigger Picture
Kaufman explained that one complaining customer actually represents many other customers who had the same problem, but didn’t complain. And because that’s true, you should try to uplift them every time.
“For every person who actually comes to complain to you, there is a quantum number who won’t come to you,” said Kaufman. “They’re the ones who go off and tell somebody else, complain about you online and take their business elsewhere. Let’s say one out of 100 of your customers actually comes to you with their complaint. Shouldn’t you really value that person times 100?”

Since this customer is representing all the other people who never voiced a complaint, showing appreciation for their time can go a long way.

“Show appreciation for the complaining customer’s time, effort, communication, feedback and suggestions,” Kaufman said. “Always keep in mind that the customer didn’t have to come to you at all. They could have simply taken their business to your competitor. When a customer gives you the opportunity to recover their service, be grateful.”

Kaufman offered the following tips to improve retail operations.

Don’t be defensive. It’s easy to get defensive when an angry customer is on the other end of the line. Customers with complaints exaggerate situations, they get confused, and yes, they may even lie about how things went down. It’s tempting to just blow off the customer. You want to say, “No! That’s not what happened. You’re wrong!” But getting defensive will lead only to more problems.

“When you get defensive, you raise the temperature even higher,” Kaufman said. “When customers complain, they’re doing so because they feel wronged in some way. You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying. But you do have to agree to hear them out. That’s how you keep the conversation moving in a positive direction.”
Acknowledge what’s important to them. Kaufman teaches that service providers must find a complaining customers’ value dimension. Even if you think the complaint is unfair, there is something they value that your company didn’t deliver on. Embrace that value.

“What the customer wants is to feel right,” Kaufman explained. “For example, if a customer says your service was slow, then that customer values speed. You might say, ‘Absolutely, you deserve quick, efficient service.’ Or if a customer says your staff was rude, you might say, ‘We do agree that you should be treated with respect every time you come to our store.’ When you validate what customers value, you aren’t agreeing with them that your service is slow or that your staff is rude, you’re saying, ‘We agree with you on what you find important and what you value. And we want to deliver in those areas.’”

Use judo, not boxing. In boxing, you go right after your opponent, trying to punch him to the ground. In judo, you work with someone else’s motions to create a desired result. You use another person’s speed and energy to gain an advantage.

“When you show customers you understand what they value, you’re catching them off guard with your own movement,” Kaufman said. “They don’t expect you to tell them that they’re right. Suddenly, just as you might do in judo, you’ve avoided a defensive confrontation and you can spin them. In customer service, you use the opportunity to show the customer that you’re now both on the same side and you can work together.”

Apologize once, upfront. Every service provider knows that the customer is not always right. But the customer is always the customer. “You don’t have tell customers you were wrong, but you should apologize for the inconvenience they’ve experienced,” Kaufman said. “When you do so, you’re showing understanding and empathy for their discomfort, displeasure or inconvenience.”

Explain the company’s desire to improve. When you understand what customers value, show them things your company does that helps you perform well in that area.

“When you express the company’s desire to improve, you start on the path to rebuilding its credibility with the customer,” Kaufman said.

Educate your customer. Part of hearing customers out is answering any questions they ask about their specific situations. Provide additional, useful information. “If they ask questions that you can’t answer or don’t know the answers to, tell them that you will find out the answers and get back to them,” Kaufman said. “And then actually follow through. Contact the customers with the answers they requested. And even if they might not have requested an update about their situation, get back in touch with them and give them one anyway. These are additional opportunities for you to say through your actions, ‘We care about you. We value your business.’”

Recover. Show the customers you care about them—even if you feel the company did everything right—by making them an offer. Companies worry that they’ll get taken advantage of if they give vouchers, discounts or freebies as part of their service recovery, but the reality is that almost never happens.

“Offer the customer something and then explain that you’re doing so ‘as a gesture of goodwill’ or ‘as a token of our appreciation,’” Kaufman said. “Sears takes recovery seriously. The company now has a ‘blue ribbon team’ of specially educated and empowered staff to handle recoveries. Once an issue goes to them, anything they recommend is what gets done. They have full support from the top down. Sears does this because the company understands that a successfully recovered customer can become your most loyal advocate and ally.”
Give serial complainers an out. Some people just love to complain. These kinds of customers complain, not so that they can become satisfied, but because they are never satisfied. With serial complainers, you must limit your liability and isolate them from your brand.

“Your customers are not your enemy,” Kaufman said. “It’s sometimes hard
to remember that when you’re involved in a tense complaint situation. But they’re essential to your business and you really are both on the same side. When you treat complaints as opportunities to build loyalty, you can create customers for life and uplift your entire company in the process.”

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