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Customer Complaints Make or Break Your Online Business Reputation

If you’ve got customer complaints, sing “Hallelujah!” because they are telling you how to fix your business model.  The way you handle them will determine in large part your business reputation, and with online chatter harder to control than at any time in human history, your success starts with your customer complaint response.

As my business expands I am re-engaging e-commerce, at least my miniscule version of it, by selling my tapes (now downloads) and books on my website along with standard services to help small businesses.  Years ago this process was more complex, and involved setting up what’s called a merchant account, and to do this you need information from the bank; basic stuff—routing numbers, federal taxpayer ID number, et al.  This is where today’s little tale of woe begins. 

The Setup

Dateline 2000: I call my credit union to get the info and I got caught in their new voicemail system and couldn’t get out.  Lots of problems with it, but that’s not the topic of this article.  Let’s just say that after ten minutes I still couldn’t talk to a person, so I did what any of you would do—I cheated.  I keyed in the extension of the first department that I could although it had nothing to do with the information I wanted and, lo and behold, I got a warm body (I wasn’t so sure later).  Here’s how it went.

“Credit Union.”

“Hello!  Is this a living, breathing person, not a voicemail recording?” I quipped.

“How can I help you?” came a very dry reply.  “I need some information on …” and I proceeded to tell her what I needed.  She gave me the information for electronic transfers and then the conversation got really interesting.

“Would it be possible for me to speak to your branch manager?”

“That’s me,” she said without ever having identified herself.

“I’d like to offer you some feedback on your voicemail system that may help you make it better, OK?”


“Well, your new system (I assumed it was new because I never got it before when calling the credit union) fits the dictionary definition of voice-jail.  I couldn’t find an appropriate department on your options menu because my question wasn’t about loans, credit cards, or Christmas club accounts.  There was no available exit to get an operator provided, so I just hit zero because that’s usually the ticket on these types of systems.  No one answered at the operator end, and your general mailbox was full and not taking any more messages.  I had no options provided to get back and had to redial after I got the electronic “good-bye.”  When I called back I—“

“No one else is having a problem.  The phone is ringing off the hook today.”

“Well, it’s a new system and others may not take the time to—“

“If you know your party’s extension you get right to a person.”

“I didn’t know my party’s extension.”

“We have a directory.”

“I just explained that my question didn’t fit your options.  Furthermore your directory numbers were hard to remember, like 6204 for the loan department and 4315 for credit cards.  Whatever happened to ones and twos?”

“Look sir, they know about the problems with the system and I’m sure they’re doing something about them.”

“Who are they?  You’re the branch manager.”

“Thank you, sir.  Have a nice day.”  Click.

This conversation left me feeling like a cat with claws distended and nobody’s eyes available to scratch out.  I was outraged, actually, more like amazed that this manager (I am thinking she may have lied) couldn’t have cared less about getting feedback and constructive criticism on the voicemail system.  Did I come across as ostentatious and condescending?  I’ll allow for that possibility, but WHO CARES!  I am the customer taking my valuable time to tell this credit union, in the nicest way possible, how their new technology actually treats customers, and she couldn’t care less!  Clearly this person had no ownership or stock in the company.  Lucky Wikipedia and RipOffReport weren’t known to me back then.

How Your Business Handles Customer Feedback


So why the long story?  Because customer feedback, especially negative feedback in the form of complaints, provides you with a goldmine of opportunity to improve your business.  Take a hard look at that story above and ask yourself if that branch manager is you.

Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your customers:

Welcome Complaints

Listen to what customers are saying.  They will tell you what they want and how to make your business better.  Think about the effort a person has to make to complain to your business.  He has to take the time and energy to look up your number or address, compose his thoughts, and make that call or write a letter.  Then he needs to patiently wait for a response that may require a follow up.  This person may be trying to get something out of you, to be sure, but many times is, in his own way, trying to help your business improve so he can have a better experience the next time.  Unlike the dim bulb branch manager in my story, recognize that if one person experiences a difficulty and bothers to tell you, ten more got the same treatment and took the path of least resistance—ceasing to do business with you and probably telling ten other people about the problem.  The person who bothers to complain is willingly giving you the opportunity to address his problem.  He wants you to.  Folks, complaints have hero potential written all over them and are key to your proactive business reputation management.

Check your ego at the door

The credit union branch manager responded to me as if I was attacking her personal handiwork by complaining about the phone system.  She took it personal.  Even if you are the originator of the problem that the customer is complaining about, get over the self-persecution complex and listen to the process or event that is being criticized.  Unless you’re a rude jerk, customers will rarely attack your personally.  Distance your personal feelings from the problem and you can provide objective analysis on fixing what needs to be fixed.

Show respect for the individual

Always be courteous with a complaining customer—no exceptions.  If you’re in business you’re in customer service, and if you’re in customer service you need a cast-iron jaw to take some hits and respond with politeness anyway.  You’ll be amazed how your positive behavior can diffuse even the angriest of customers.  If the person complaining becomes abusive, don’t give in to the urge to verbally tear her a new one, just politely end the conversation.  Good behavior in response to criticism means more than kind words.  It means not projecting a pompous smugness to the customer, not cutting her off when she’s speaking, and not trivializing the problem that she’s pointing out.  It means getting back to someone who you promised you would after investigating the complaint.  You have to go overboard here people, just to be safe.  I’d wager that the manager of my credit union thought she was being courteous to me, and look what I heard.

Go the extra mile

Business lore is replete with stories of top companies who saw complaints as opportunities and turned bad situations into winners by remedying the situation with effectiveness and style.  Your objective is to turn a complainer into an advocate.  Think of your own life.  How to you respond when a complaint you have with a company is resolved better than you expected?  I know that when I have an issue with a company and they take it seriously and make me whole, I rave about that company more than I ever would have had the problem not occurred.  My used IBM Thinkpad kept malfunctioning, three times in fact.  IBM’s customer service is responding to these instances was so exemplary, however, that I have to tax my memory even to recall what the problems were.  There were product issues, but no customer service recovery steps were necessary.  They kept extending the warranty beyond it’s original termination date, paid full FedEx freight to and from my house and always gave me a maximum of 3-day turnaround.  You can’t get that from the PC store down the street.  I told everybody how great the service was, and friends of mine bought IBM products on my recommendation.

The Takeaway

Your business reputation can be trashed these days to tens of thousands, even millions, faster than you can blink an eye.  You don’t have to have the value discipline of being the best at customer service in your industry, but you do have to meet a threshold level of service.    In order for that to happen you need to actively seek the opinions of your customers.  Survey responses telling you how great you are doesn’t provide you with much room for improvement; in fact, they can lead to complacency and a regression in your company service.  The best source of feedback is customer complaints.  Welcome them, recognize them for what they are, nurture them, and turn them into victories and you will propel your business to the top.

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