Hello, Complaint Department? My Friends Are Listening

If it costs five times more to acquire a new customer than to keep one, why do brands continue to try and ignore customer complaints? For as long as there have been businesses selling goods and services, there have been complaint departments. And I’m guessing that as the number of sales increased, so did the number of complaints. So why did it take until the creation of the Internet and the popularity of social media for so many businesses to really start to address customer satisfaction issues?

If it costs five times more to acquire a new customer than to keep one, why do brands continue to try and ignore customer complaints?

For as long as there have been businesses selling goods and services, there have been complaint departments. And I’m guessing that as the number of sales increased, so did the number of complaints. So why did it take until the creation of the Internet and the popularity of social media for so many businesses to really start to address customer satisfaction issues?

In the early 1970’s, interactive voice response (IVR) technology came into vogue. While it was designed to service high call volumes, reduce costs and improve the customer experience, we all know it was a great way to avoid actually talking to customers—especially those with complaints.

As companies got bigger, somebody decided that titles like “customer service rep” weren’t friendly enough, or didn’t accurately describe the importance of the position. (Perhaps because they didn’t actually provide service? Well, that’s a topic for another day.)

That said, titles changed to be things like “Customer Relationship Specialist” or “Customer Interaction Management Specialist” (I kid you not). But it didn’t change the job function … nor the attitude or behavior of the rep who was supposedly resolving your complaint.

As complaints soared, so did the many ways businesses tried to avoid a direct dialogue with those harboring a complaint. Once consumers discovered that pressing “0” usually connected one with a live body, businesses changed that option. I recently called one financial institution to complain that the ATM had eaten my card (yes, I was standing in front of the machine reading the teeny-tiny 800 number posted to the machine in the least obvious location). I probably went through five or six different “menu” options before I finally got someone live on the phone who told me that he had never heard of an ATM eating a card before. So I guess he felt it was helpful to call me a liar. Hmmm …

Next came the Web—and with it the “Contact Us” page. But once again, businesses became overwhelmed with the number of consumers who wanted to have a dialogue with them. Now when you visit “Contact Us,” there’s a form to fill out or worse—no email or phone number, but just a link to “Commonly Asked Questions & Answers” or “Popular Topics” or, one of my favorites, “Where’s My Stuff?”

Have you ever tried to call Amazon? Yeah. Good luck finding a phone number. I will say that I had a problem with my Kindle and, after quite a bit of scouring around the website, found a phone number from a dialogue in a Kindle forum. I called it and got GREAT customer service (I think it was Bob’s first call all day because he actually sounded happy to help me).

Now the Web has created a whole new business complaint system—and it’s for all the world to see. From the formalized review process of Yelp and Angie’s List to sites that let you rate your experience with a product/service like OpenTable.com or Hotels.com, you can whine all you want and it’s very difficult for the brands to respond/resolve (even if they wanted to).

It’s easy to go to a company’s Facebook page and post a rant (I’ve seen some really ugly comments posted on some of the biggest brands’ Facebook pages).

I know these public forums can be an extremely unfair system—especially to smaller businesses who live and die from customer reviews. And I know that not everyone is reasonable with their expectation about a product/service, nor do all consumers have legitimate complaints (although they may feel otherwise).

So here’s my suggestion: If you want to build a positive image of your brand, create a culture that allows for customer feedback and conflict resolution. Make it easy for customers to find a phone number, call you and speak to a live person and/or email you and get a fast response. Empower your reps to resolve issues quickly and fairly—perhaps invest in training them how to listen with empathy, and how to make a decision to do “the right thing.” Spend less time and money on “satisfaction surveys” (which I personally dislike) and more time on “creating satisfaction.”

Net-net, treat every customer as if they were your most valuable asset—because they are. It will return a bigger ROI than any marketing campaign investment.

Author: Carolyn Goodman

A blog that challenges B-to-B marketers to learn, share, question, and focus on getting it right—the first time. Carolyn Goodman is President/Creative Director of Goodman Marketing Partners. An award-winning creative director, writer and in-demand speaker, Carolyn has spent her 30-year career helping both B-to-B and B-to-C clients cut through business challenges in order to deliver strategically sound, creatively brilliant marketing solutions that deliver on program objectives. To keep her mind sharp, Carolyn can be found most evenings in the boxing ring, practicing various combinations. You can find her at the Goodman Marketing website, on LinkedIn, or on Twitter @CarolynGoodman.

5 thoughts on “Hello, Complaint Department? My Friends Are Listening”

  1. Absolutely excellent blog, Carolyn.
    You know how two continents build up pressure, then suddenly there is a big shift. We call it an earthquake.

    The same has been happening between customers and companies.

    Companies introduced:
    Automated phone systems instead of receptionists.
    Emails from no-reply addresses so you couldn’t respond.
    Charges to call their call centre.
    Off-shore call centres where English was a second language.
    Confusopoly on tariffs and charges with exit charges etc.

    They thought that because customers did nothing, they accepted this.
    But they didn’t.

    Now the earthquake has happened. Customers have wrested control.

    And companies don’t know why.

    The reality is that they’ve become anti-social organisations.
    They’ve set up procedures to drive customers away.

    These customers may never come back.
    Not as long as there is somebody better out there.

  2. Your blog is 100% bang-on. Try calling LinkedIn. Can’t be done. There was a problem renewing my $239 per year Premium membership because, in the year since the last renewal, my card # had changed due to one of those fraud alert situations. So I went online with LinkedIn, input the new card # and the renewal went through. But, in the process, a couple of questions about LinkedIn’s service occurred to me, so I tried to contact them with the idea that a multi-question call with a Customer Support rep for 5-10 minutes would resolve the situation and possibly even make me a better-versed customer and perhaps start using the site more. Boy, was that ever a naïve perspective!

    Your first and only choice is to put your query in a dialog box and send it to LinkedIn. If your query is broad, they have a list of several boxes they want you to fit into. I sent back a polite e-mail complaining about technological manipulation, requesting a phone call from a rep and giving them my mobile #. I get an e-mail back insisting on e-communication only as it would help them understand my issue and more efficiently solve it. My response was polite and direct. I gave LinkedIn a choice – either have a real person call me or refund my $239 Premium membership fee. They chose the latter. I was always polite, never threatened and never used stupid language. I just wanted to speak to a real person for 10 minutes. Maybe they’ve done the math and have concluded that it’s cheaper to lose a Premium customer than to talk to him. And maybe with Gen Y and later, it’s good math? But, in the long run, it looks like a losing strategy – customers, among other product attributes, value choice. In communicating with LinkedIn, that choice does not exist. The one positive I can mention is that they were at least prompt with their e-responses. And very prompt with my refund, but unless they have to pay phone-friendly reps $240 per 10 minutes, they should have been more prompt with a phone call!

  3. As long as I’m complaining, I’ll balance it with a kudos. Scotiabank in Canada has a great customer service feature. You dial the 800 number and the very first menu choice is "Press 1 for a real person or 2 for the electronic menu". If you press "1" a person answers almost immediately. Revolutionary, no?

  4. @Carolyn Great topic. This is why Zappos empowers employees to provide an outstanding customer experience and not penalize CSRs for long call times. I thought Amazon would learn something from Zappos by buying them — I guess not.

  5. Absolutely spot on advice. Try calling Apple vs any other computer manufacturer and see the difference. Just for their no BS customer service alone I would only buy Apple products.

    The point is your company had better have their brand promise fulfilled from a customer perspective, or risk getting skewered via social media. Social is the great equalizer for bad customer service.

    Jim

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