Picture the scene: an email is forwarded your way and someone isn’t happy. A customer order has gone wrong, a delivery has been missed, a life hasn’t worked out as planned and they blame you. So what to do? Add it to your ‘to do list’, forward it for someone else to take care of, ignore it or reply to the customer and explain precisely why it isn’t your fault? In fact, none of the above are good ideas. The best thing to do is to rejoice; you’ve just been granted a golden opportunity to turn fury into free advertising.
Angry customers have lost hope, they think your company has taken their money for granted, so it’s time to flip their expectations upside-down and watch them tell the world how nice you were. “A lot of research shows that if you deal with a complaint respectfully, people are very grateful and tend to tell others,” says Phil Anderson, a director of Ashridge Business School who has spent years studying customer service. However, he points out that great customer service is an investment of both time and money. “It can take time to turn a problem into an opportunity,” he warns.
Anderson says that businesses, such as hotelier Ritz Carlton or the Swedish bank Handelsbanken, both demonstrate excellent customer service, but achieve it through very different means; The Ritz holds regular meetings with staff working on customer service basics and ensuring everyone knows who the VIPs are. Anderson says there’s a considerable amount of discipline in its approach. Meanwhile Handelsbanken is far more decentralised and personalised, yet its customer satisfaction levels are ‘extraordinary’.
But what both organisations have in common is they enable staff to deal with problems as they arise, Anderson explains. This means giving the customer service team a discretionary budget and allowing them to spend it without talking to a supervisor. The hotelier can therefore provide free drinks, meals or rooms when a guest has become unhappy, or the bank can rapidly authorise an advance before a customer has time to get upset or embarrassed. “It’s been described as freedom within a gilded cage, so there might be an upper limit on the amount that can be spent on a customer complaint. There are boundaries but staff are free to operate within them,” Anderson says.
Businesses are occasionally perceived as being remote and incapable of dealing with people on a human level. All too often, they restrict the abilities of their frontline staff and won’t allow them to tackle problems. Call centre employees are often expected to deal with a set amount of calls per day, rather than focusing on the quality of the service. Anderson says Handelsbanken removes as many barriers as possible and provides direct lines for customers to their account managers.
“Handelsbanken has a very decentralised approach, but its customer service satisfaction levels are extraordinary. Customers are given the personal mobile number of their account manager and can call them day or night. This surprises many people, but apparently they get very few calls and when they do so it is really urgent,” he says.
There is little doubt that the rise of the internet and social media has changed both the nature and the importance of customer service. Customers have become empowered by online tools and for some businesses this has been hard to deal with. An angry customer can now broadcast their grievances to the world and attract others to their cause who might also want to punish the company involved. Peter Mulhmann, the CEO of reviews company Trustpilot, advocates a direct and open response when dealing with complaints or criticism. “Modern web habits have dramatically altered the way businesses interact with consumers. At times these tools can leave businesses open to criticism and bad reviews, but we’ve seen companies turn these complainants into customers time and again.”
Mulhmann suggests that some complainants are worth more time than others and that some people will just try their luck. However, many just feel frustrated because no-one is listening to their concerns. “If the complaint is unnecessarily rude or wildly inaccurate, then it really comes down to each business’s own principles for managing this type of issue. However, if the complaint is critical but it’s also clear the customer feels hard done by, then we’d recommend engaging with that person and working to both turn around their experience and make it clear to other customers that this will not happen again.”
Mulhmann also believes that rapidly offering a customer compensation for inconvenience can work wonders; it will salve their grievances and increase the chances of repeat business.
“For example, if a delivery was late then work out what happened, apologise and offer the customer something a little extra. This leaves the customer with a feeling that their views are listened to and that it was a genuine mistake that will not be repeated. Not only that, but that customer is now incentivised to become a return customer. And we all know how valuable a return customer is compared with the cost of attracting a new one.”
Businesses often over-complicate things when providing customer service. In fact good service is not about asking customers to fill in excessive forms, or employing complex algorithms. For many businesses such things can distract a business from what’s most important; people pay money because they want the product. As Anderson says: “The worst mistake is to not deliver on your promises. A lot of businesses go to great lengths to create a customer service experience when all their customers want is what they paid for.”