Game Plan for Handling Customer Complaints

One of my own experiences with a customer complaint was about a bill. Yes, a bill for legal fees. What a surprise. I was in private practice billing according to the firm's policy.

The customer complained about the amount of the bill and I delayed responding to his complaint because there was other billable work to do. That, and the customer was difficult. He habitually asked for advice then did his own thing, then expected us to clean up the mess he had made, which often took additional unnecessary time. And he expected us to charge less because he had done 'so much of the work' himself. Problem client.

I also had no experience with complaints like that and didn't know what to say. Of course the complaint was escalated and became a BIG DEAL but was eventually sorted out to the customers satisfaction, and my chagrin for not having dealt with it effectively.

So, from experience, here is a suggested game plan for dealing with a customer complaint straight away:

      1.   What is the complaint?

You would think that this has an easy answer, but that is not always the case. With it being so easy to send an email, you can now receive pages and pages of information from your customers about why they are not happy with you. What you need to do is work out, in all the excess, what you think their complaint actually is.

     2.   If you don't have experience handling that type of problem, ask someone who does

      It is such a mistake when you are new to any situation to think that you need to do it on your own. Call on the people you know and ask them how they would handle the situation. You do not need to do exactly what they did, but it is so much better to learn from other peoples' experience than to try and make an original mistake. If there is no one in your business with that experience, ask a colleague or a mentor.

           3.  Separate the person from the problem   

      When you do get "War and Peace" from a customer, be very careful to separate the problem out from the personality presenting it. I help a customer service team to respond to unreasonable demands. Sometimes the demands are highly emotional or blatantly excessive. There are times when I will help them to write a response, then 'sit' on that response for a day or two before reviewing it again for sending. That short delay helps to take the 'heat' out of the response. Sometimes the response will then be edited so that it only responds to the actual problem and does not contain anything that could enflame the customer further.

           4.   Know what you can do

      It sounds funny, but know what you can do for a customer before you try to respond to their complaint or concerns. Have a game plan worked out. What is the worst thing that can happen – and that might not be just about the customer, your reputation could be on the line. What is the best thing that can happen? Write out what you see as all the options. Think outside the box. This does not mean you have to offer every option, but does help you feel more confident in your position.

           5.   Ask the customer what they expect of you to fix the problem

      Sometimes a person just needs to feel listened to so that they can let go of what they think was a problem. Sometimes a customer won't expect you to do anything at all. Don't get worked up over nothing. Just take on board their feedback. If you respond quickly to a complaint or concern, or respond a little more slowly but fully with a reasoned response, you can elimiate the problem straight away.

            6.   If making a phone call, write down what you want to say

      If you have a note of all the points you want to cover in a conversation, it is much easier to keep the conversation on track and to handle the conversation confidently. Be prepared. If the customer comes up with something new that you've not considered, tell them that you need to have time to consider their concerns or request if you need to.

            7.   Get agreement from the customer

      In a formal dispute resolution process you would get a written release signed by the customer. A properly worded release would ensure that the customer did not raise the problem again, at least in a way that meant you were liable to pay money. In view of maintaining relationships, and in the course of informal negotiations, this may not be the most appropriate thing to do and could even inflame things. Do make a diary note or get an email confirmation, something in writing to indicate that the customer is happy with the solution and that the matter is at an end.

      Oh, so what happened with the client who complained about his bill? He got a discount and I'd like to say I received some mentoring, but it was more like a telling off.

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      One Response to “Game Plan for Handling Customer Complaints”

      1. Shirley May 12, 2011 at 8:40 pm #

        Hi Jeanatte
        I have had lots of experience of complaints as the general population love to complain about the health service! The main problem is the feelings that the complaint induces in us. Even if the complaint is ludicrous, which is usually is, we still feel hurt and upset. This can range from rage, anger, frustration to anxiety, panic and tears. It can often tap into our buried insecurities from childhood that yes indeed we are not good enough and have been found out. This is how I handle these episodes:

        1) recognise the feelings that I have and accept them
        2) see if it taps into a particular insecurity I have been hiding and use the opportunity to upskill in areas where I feel weak to give me more confidence
        3) separate me from the complaint – its hard not to take it personally but often the complaint is about the client more than about me – they may think they have something to gain e.g. financially and see an opportunity
        4) remind myself about all the clients I have helped successfully. We tend to focus on the 'failed customer service' which can rankle us all day rather than all the happy clients who don't give feedback. So I make a list of all the people I've helped and sometimes pin it to the wall to remind myself that 99% of the time i do a great job
        5) talk it over with someone and get advice 
        6) don't waste time feeling annoyed. whenever I find myself brooding about it I check my success list (as above) and then busy myself with some fun task or activity. The more we brood the more the feelings about the episode become fixed in our memory to be retrieved in glorious technicolor when the next episode happens

        Thanks Shirley

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