Customer Altruism: A Complaint Really Is A Gift

It is against our nature to respond receptively to complaints. At their base, complaints are alerts that we (or our business) are unsatisfactory and often are requests to change our behavior.

People usually don't like being told how bad they suck.

But in business you have a responsibility to please your customers. In this effort, you may do market research, put out surveys, or request exit interviews. But what if you could hear all of feedback without paying for it?

Complaining is the customer's way of giving feedback. It's often difficult to hear about areas that need improving, but complaints can easily change your business for the better.

In this post, I will prove that customer complaints usually emanate from an altruistic place, that their feedback is immensely important to your business, and offer ways that complaints can be turned into a wonderful gift.

It's like lotto: you have to be in it to win it

The first step to turning a complaint into a gift is the ability to listen. Listening to your customers is really online reputation management. The good thing is that your customers are already talking about your business. From Bob Thompson, CEO of CustomerThink:

"You also might find that customers are already telling you what they want on forums or blogs, web site feedback forms or call center agent logs - if you'll take the time to read them. Text mining is becoming a more commonplace way to learn what customers are saying when the volume becomes too high to handle manually."

Power to the people

We also know from Groundswell (my must-read book of 2008) that a full quarter of U.S. adults leave reviews online. And why are customers giving this feedback? Believe it or not, but it's usually because they want to help.

A recent Bavaarvoice survey shows that 73% of respondents say they write online reviews of products because they want to help companies improve the products they build and carry (per MarketingVox). Your customers who review your products online (one feedback/complaint mechanism) are mostly motivated by altruism.

Another reason not to ignore this feedback is because it's likely true. ComScore reports that "[n]inety-seven percent of those surveyed who said they made a purchase based on an online review said they found the review to have been accurate." ComScore also reports that customers trust each other more than you, the professional.

A plan of action

So we know that customer reviews are accurate and trusted. We also know that they give you feedback or complain because, in the end, they want to help you improve. So how can you leverage this feedback?

Psychotactics recommends the following:

  1. Get face to face and let your customers know who to complain to.
  2. Listen to customer's precise complaints, fix them, and then don't forget to woo them back.
  3. Complainers can frequently be turned into the most vocal advocates, if handled properly.
  4. It costs 8 times as much to get a new customer than to retain one your already have. 'Nuff said.
  5. The customer is always right.

What this and other sources agree upon is that customer feedback is incredibly rich information. Your employees need to cultivate this feedback and they need to know that upper management encourages listening and reacting based on customer feedback.

Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller effectively wrote the manual on this process in their book, A Complaint Is A Gift. They write about integrating this into your process:

"Treating complaints as feedback from a most valuable asset, customers, helps create a customer-focused culture...Service recovery takes care of customer, makes them whole, and ensures that the organization lives up to its service promise. Customer complaints provide the information to improve the organization's quality" (page 71).

Have you created a business culture where complaints are valued and acted upon? How have you improved your business through feedback from your customers? Please feel free to leave suggestions and lessons learned in the comments section below.

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(Photo courtesy of pj mac via Flickr)