Complaint is a Gift: Recovering Customer Loyalty When Things Go Wrong / Edition 2

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The first edition of A Complaint is a Gift introduced the revolutionary notion that customer complaints are not annoyances to be dodged, denied or buried, but are instead valuable pieces of feedback that can be used to improve an organizations products and services. This new edition has been thoroughly revised and updated. There are two brand new chapters on the Internet, a new section entitled Handling Complaints Directed at You and another new section that turns the tables and discusses how the reader can complain effectively. More relevant than ever in todays constantly connected world, when customers can complain instantly, 24/7, and broadcast their dissatisfaction around the world if they choose to, throughout the text has been heavily revised, with a wealth of new examples, tools and strategies.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781576755822
  • Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/1/2008
  • Edition description: Second Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 287
  • Sales rank: 137,264
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Barlow is president of Time Manager International, a consulting firm that specializes in time management.

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Read an Excerpt

A Complaint Is a Gift

Recovering Customer Loyalty When Things Go Wrong
By Janelle Barlow Claus Møller

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 Janelle Barlow and Claus Møller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57675-582-2

Chapter One

A Complaint Is a Gift Strategy

It's not easy to listen to complaining customers all day long. The following tirade by a service representative venting on the Internet is not all that different from many we have heard in person. You can almost hear the conflict this service provider is experiencing about her job, especially when she confronts an upset customer.

Customer complaints suck. Customers complain 90 percent of the time because they have had a bad day and need someone to take it out on. I work for a wireless company and I get so many complaints that it is sickening ... My job is to help the customer, but there is a limit that any employee of any company can tolerate. I am sick of customer complaints. No matter how hard I try, customers are not satisfied within the limit of what we as employees can do by company policy ... but when a customer comes into an establishment with an attitude from the start, it is hard to keep a level head when they are screaming at you and accusing you of being rude. Anonymous

How About a Slightly Different Scenario?

Imagine that a friend comes to visit on your birthday with a lovely present in hand. The first thing you would say after greeting him or her would, most likely, be an expression of gratitude. "Thank you. Thank you for coming and thank you for the lovely present." Your entire verbal and nonverbal language would signal your pleasure at seeing your friend and receiving the gift.

What if you then opened this gift and found a CD purchased just for you? What would you say? "Wow! I'm so pleased. I've wanted this CD for some time. How thoughtful of you to get it for me. How did you know this is my favorite artist? I'll think of you every time I listen to it." Okay, maybe not that profuse but something along those lines.

Now imagine that a customer has called you with a complaint. "My name is Chris Cooper, and your wireless service never works. I keep getting disconnected, and your advertising goes on and on about how you can be heard anywhere in the country. And that's not all. My first bill had charges for calls I know I didn't make. But that doesn't surprise me. If you can't get the connections right, you probably can't get your billing right!" Would you say, "Thank you for calling and telling us about this. How thoughtful of you. We really appreciate it"? Probably not.

But when we receive a birthday present, we do not hesitate. We say, "Thank you." Why do we do this? Because a friend took time to get us something special—in most cases. What about complaining customers? Are they friends? Or do they look like enemies? What are they trying to do? What are they giving us?

Complaining customers are giving us an opportunity to find out what their problems are so we can help them and they will be encouraged to come back, use our services, and buy our products. It's as if they have gifted us with a blog written just for us: "A Chance to Survive: Listen to Me and You'll Stay in Business." So don't say, "Go away. I've already got one CD by this artist, and I don't want to listen to another. I'm too busy."

When encountering the customer who complains about phone calls that are continually dropped and repetitive billing errors, many company representatives will start by asking a barrage of identification questions: "What is your name? How do you spell that? What is your phone number? What is your address? When did you start your service? What is the product number of your telephone? (By the way, if you don't have it handy, it's on the bottom of your phone in such tiny digits that you'll need a magnifying glass to read it.) Do you have your monthly bill in front of you? What is our order number? What is your Web order number? What is your PO number? When did you send in your last payment?" They may blame billing by sighing and saying, "We hear a lot of complaints about incorrect billing." They may attack their own company by saying, "Those dropped calls happen a lot. It's rather unbelievable that our advertising says we're the best in the business. If that's true, it makes you wonder about all the other wireless companies." If customers are very lucky, they will get an apology.

But very few customer service people will say "Thank you" right off the bat. They may thank you at the end of the conversation, by which time you may be so annoyed, it's a meaningless phrase.

What if someone gave you a CD for your birthday and you responded with a barrage of questions: "Where did you buy it? Did you pay cash or charge it? Did you pay full price for it or get it at a discount store—or on eBay? Come on. Fess up. How many songs does it have on it? Have you already listened to it and downloaded it onto your iPod? Why did you give it to me if you haven't heard it yourself? Based on some silly best-seller iTunes list, you want me to spend my time listening to this thing?" You would never be so ungracious about a gift unless you have genuine social problems, in which case no one would be likely to give you a gift in the first place. You would say, "Thank you," and you would mean it—even if you already had a copy of this CD or didn't like most of the songs on it.

The mind-set of customer-facing staff has a huge influence on what is going to happen in any service encounter, particularly when complaints are being made or help is requested. In a study relevant to the impact of mind-set on complaint handling, researchers at the University of Alabama questioned how service employees themselves impact the use of self-service technologies (SSTs). Employees whose mind-set was that SSTs helped them do their own jobs better took time to educate customers facing problems on how to operate the SST devices. When faced with customers who couldn't get the devices to do what they wanted, employees who held the mind-set that SSTs are a burden and not a convenience for anyone would simply step in and operate the devices themselves. Their customers didn't have a chance to learn themselves, ensuring that when they returned they would face the same difficulty. Mind-set definitely matters, even though the service employees had no awareness of how their attitudes were impacting their behavior.

A survey of European retail banks revealed a direct connection between the way that leaders at financial institutions think about complaints and the way that customers behave when they have a complaint and ultimately how they are treated. Customers, in other words, can sense that an organization sees complaints as a gift or as a necessary evil. An in-depth study of two Swedish banks also supports the idea that the way branch managers think about complaints impacts how customers are treated and how they respond. The researchers found that successful managers used complaint handling as their primary tool for creating long-term customer satisfaction with small-business customers.

So, how can we begin to internalize the strategic idea that a complaint is a gift? It starts by understanding what a complaint is.

What Is a Complaint?

In simplest terms, complaints are statements about expectations that have not been met. They are also, and perhaps more importantly, opportunities for an organization to reconnect with customers by fixing a service or product breakdown. In this way, complaints are gifts customers give to businesses. Everyone will benefit from carefully opening these packages and seeing what is inside.

On the surface, customers may complain that their newly purchased blue jeans shrank or the color ran and ruined a load of white clothing. At a deeper level, customers are giving the store where they bought the item an opportunity to respond so they will continue buying more clothing from that business.

On the surface, customers may complain that the vacuum cleaner they just purchased doesn't suit their needs. At a deeper level, they are testing the retailer to see how it takes back the vacuum cleaner.

On the surface, customers may complain that they waited on hold for three and a half hours to get help setting up their expensive new computer. At a deeper level, they are speaking about their fears that they made a stupid purchasing decision, a fear that will periodically rear up to impact how they think about their computer during the years it remains functional.

On the surface, customers may complain to the grocer that the turkey they purchased did not contain any giblets, which they discovered only on Thanksgiving day itself, when the store was closed. At a deeper level, customers are wondering whether the grocer will take their word for it and how the store will compensate them for this disappointment.

On the surface, customers let their insurance agents know in no uncertain terms that when they call the insurance company to ask a simple question, their calls are not returned for days. At a deeper level, customers are warning their agents that they may look at a competitor when their policy comes up for renewal.

What do you suppose most service representatives hear—the surface complaint or the deeper message? We contend that, unfortunately, all too many hear only the direct, surface message. ("You won't believe what I heard today from a customer! Their turkey didn't have any giblets. I say, 'Get a life.' People are starving, and they are complaining because their twenty-five-pound turkey didn't have any giblets!") And the end results are mismanaged complaints, lack of empathy, and loss of customers.

When organizations listen to customers with open minds and more flexible points of view, they can experience complaints as gifts. Unfortunately, most of us don't like to hear complaints and we erect enormous psychological blocks to hearing them. Even more fundamentally, as we will discuss later, most customers simply don't grace us with their complaints. They just take their business elsewhere.

Why We Don't Like Complaints

On the surface, it seems apparent why complaints have a bad reputation. Customers are saying that they do not like something about us. Who likes to hear that? It means there's something wrong with us. Complaints are about blame, or what psychologists call negative attribution.

When something positive happens, people have a tendency to attribute it to themselves or to take credit for their own behavior. For example, a customer buying a dress will likely think herself rather clever for finding it if she receives compliments on it, even if a shopkeeper clearly found the dress, brought it to the buyer, and urged her to purchase it.

Something different happens, however, when a failure occurs. Most of us like to blame other individuals or systems when things aren't working out. In fact, according to Saint Louis University research, customers tend to blame specific firms or specific individuals. For customers, this usually means that employees, specifically those we are eye-to-eye or ear-to-ear with, are to blame when there is a product or service failure. Employees do the same thing in reverse. When they hear complaints, they tend to blame the customers, and when customers engage in socially unacceptable behavior (such as shouting or swearing), employees almost always develop a negative attitude toward them. When employees hold this negative judgment, they tend not to make product exchanges for customers, or at a minimum, they do not make product exchanges easy. Many employees understand, however, that blaming customers is not a behavior likely to get them high marks from customers or promoted by their managers, so they mask their feelings and try to come up with more acceptable theories as to why things went wrong. A common explanation is that the organization, its policies, or management is to blame. Employees may say to customers, "I'd really like to help you, but there's nothing I can do. Our policy ..." or "My hands are tied. I'll get in trouble if I do that for you. Sorry."

Unfortunately, blaming policies has little impact on customers because it does nothing to resolve their problems. Nor does its top customers from blaming the employees. Even if employees indicate that they do not agree with the policies that are stopping them from satisfying customers, most customers don't separate employee behavior from company policies. The father of modem attribution theory, Fritz Heider, notes that most of us attribute blame to individuals rather than the circumstances surrounding a product or service failure. For example, if a service provider says, "I know this sounds ridiculous, but I need ...," customers will likely think, "If it's ridiculous, then why are you asking for this information?"

Most service delivery today is complex, and a number of firms or individuals may have been involved in the service failure. This means that service providers need to carefully explain what happened without sounding as if they are attempting to pass blame onto someone else. They can probably accomplish this by saying, "I'm going to take responsibility for this, even though several people were involved. We need to find out what happened so I can solve this problem for you."

Wegmans Food Market, a popular chain in the upper northeastern United States, operates under the promise "Every day you get our best," and that means "[we] will listen to your complaints so [we] can get better." Wegmans, founded in 1916, has won more than thirty significant awards for its uniqueness and customer service and for "changing the way we shop." It won the 2007 Food Network Award for the Best Grocery Store. And Wegmans has been named one of the one hundred best places to work in America by Fortune magazine every year since the list started in 1988. It was number one in 2005, number two in 2006, and number three in 2007.

Wegmans honors the implicit contract that customers assume has been made: if they do not like what they purchased, if it does not meet their needs, if it is substandard, or if they have changed their minds, they are buying the right to say something about this. It asks for complaints on its Web site; feedback forms are easy to fill out, and it is obvious someone reads them. The site states clearly that a live person will address the complaint and get back to the customer within a few days. We tried it, and it works. The vice president of consumer affairs, Mary Ellen Burris, incorporates information about complaints into her weekly columns, letting consumers know what Wegmans is doing about the feedback it receives. In one column posted on the Wegmans Web site, for example, she noted that customers complained about not being able to clearly see measurement lines on one of its detergent caps. Wegmans listened and changed the cap color.

Complaining Customers Are Still Customers

In order for us to treat complaints as gifts, we need to achieve a complete shift in perception and attitude about the role of complaints in modern business relationships. This requires separating the message of the complaint from the emotion of being blamed, which, in turn, means understanding the dynamics of disappointed people and rethinking how complaints can help us achieve our business goals. Consider these examples from the homebuilding industry, and imagine what these companies would say if they were asked if complaints are gifts.

• Marvin Windows and Doors learned that the wood frames on its windows and doors were rotting. It turns out that the complaints came in after the one-year warranty period was up. The cause of the problem was actually wood preservative provided by Pittsburgh Paint and Glass (PPG). PPG refused to take responsibility for the rotting, but Marvin Windows did. It replaced the damaged products, ditched PPG as a supplier, and sourced a better preservative so it could extend its product warranty from one year to ten. In 2007, after also winning the award in 2006, Marvin Windows received the highest numerical score in the J. D. Powers and Associates Award for Builders and Remodelers.

• Dryvit produces exterior insulate and finish systems. Moisture was rottingitssidingproductsbasicallybecauseofbuilderinstallationmistakes. Dryvit took responsibility and created a moisture drain to keep its product dry. Dryvit also increased its warranty to ten years. Following this change, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the most respected testing facility of the U.S. Department of Energy, ranked Dryvit's product 84 percent higher than the next-best-performing system.


Excerpted from A Complaint Is a Gift by Janelle Barlow Claus Møller Copyright © 2008 by Janelle Barlow and Claus Møller. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Customer Speaks....................1
PART ONE Complaints: Lifeline to the Customer....................17
1. A Complaint Is a Gift Strategy....................19
2. Complaints: Necessary Evil or Opportunities?....................32
3. Capitalizing on Complaints....................54
4. Why Most Customers Don't Complain....................74
5. In the Mind of the Complaining Customer....................98
PART TWO Putting the Complaint Is a Gift Strategy into Practice....................121
6. The Gift Formula....................123
7. Creating Better Customers with Goodwill....................141
8. When Customers Go Ballistic....................159
9. It's All in the Words: Responding to Written Complaints....................180
10. From a Whisper to a Global Shout....................202
PART THREE Dishing It Out and Taking It In: The Personal Side of Complaints....................217
11. When Feedback Gets Personal....................219
12. When You Complain, Make Sure You Are Giving a Gift....................236
Conclusion: Looking to the Future....................247
About the Authors....................285
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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2008


    Even better than the first edition! For any executive who understands that truly satisfied clients breed the best opportunities for more clients, 'A Complaint Is A Gift' is a powerful tool to be shared company-wide. Taking cues from the most modern branding thought today and combining it with actionable 'how to's' you can apply immediately, the latest edition is a must-have for marketing and advertising professionals. It showed my team how to truly practice what we preach: that client relevance and differentiation starts from the inside-out, but first we must unplug our ears and listen to the good and the bad from our clients. And some of the best learning will indeed come from the bad things we hear about ourselves.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2009

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