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Complaints as a marketing advantage PDF Print E-mail
Written by Alixe MacRae   
ImageRecent research reveals that over 70% of complainants who have a satisfactory resolution to their concerns become even more loyal customers. These are customers who care enough about your business to use precious time to communicate with you. But most companies do an absolutely dreadful job of handling these complaints, losing customers daily.

Recently I visited a large grocery chain that had advertised an item I wanted. I was sent to 4 different departments, with no positive results. So, I sent an email to the complaints department on their web site, and received the standard automated reply. Five days later I was sent another note, informing me that the store manager would call. That was over three weeks ago.

I was in the same store just the other day and questioned some erroneous pricing. The staff said "Yes, it's wrong, but we just do what ‘they' tell us to do. They won't listen to anything we say."

Ouch! The company treats all feedback, staff and customer with equal distain. Considering it costs five times as much to gain a new customer than keep a current one, the bottom line will bleed unnecessarily.

A company that does a much better job is Sympatico. While I'm not a big fan of outsourcing call centres, they manage the situation very well. If there are technical difficulties, I get a live voice who obtains my phone number if the call is disconnected. The technician is almost too polite, and ensures that the problem is completely resolved before ending the session. Then a note is sent to me asking for a rating of the service. Immediate help, problem resolution and satisfaction follow-up - these are the reasons I haven't switched to the other provider.

How can you provide great complaint resolution without a 24/7 call centre? Three things jump immediately to mind.

Start by listening to and addressing staff complaints with openness and respect. You will set the tone for all such communications. If the complaint sounds trivial, dig deeper. In many cases the small complaint is a symptom of a bigger issue. Take the time to fully understand. One of the kings of service is Isadore Sharp (of Four Seasons fame) who always said his managers should be "paying as much attention to employee complaints as guest complaints."

Secondly, set clear standards for response time and ownership. If no one owns the problem, it will never be effectively dealt with. No matter what the chain of delegation, the owner has responsibility until the customer declares it to be resolved. The Four Seasons does not have a customer service department, every member of the team is held responsible for customer satisfaction; a responsibility gladly accepted. The Four Seasons has appeared on Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For every year since its inception in 1998.

Finally, audit your complaints. Who's complaining? About what? Root cause? Resolution? Become you own customer service manager. While telephone complaints are hard to track, you can ask your IT manager for a random selection of 10% of your online complaints monthly. Send a personal follow-up note that has simple message, such as this:

"Dear Mrs. Smith, as the owner of ABC company I want you to know how much I value your business. Recently you communicated a concern regarding ‘X'. Was this problem resolved to your complete satisfaction?"

Your customers will be impressed, you will gain valuable insight and the importance you place on this aspect of your business will filter down to everyone in your company.

This is a competitive advantage most companies simply ignore. The furniture retailer that adopts complaints as a marketing tool will find himself with a growing cadre of loyal customers, who will spend more money and generate more profits. And it's not that hard to do. Isadore Sharp would be proud.

A regular contributor to Home Goods Online, Alixe MacRae is one of this country's best known merchandisers, having held senior positions at a variety of well-known Canadian retailers including Stoney Creek Furniture, Sears Canada and The Bay. She recently started her own business Concierge Relocation ( Her company specializes in move management, especially for those dramatically downsizing seniors and their overwhelmed children.

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