Talking to the hand

The customer was unhappy and decided to let you know. What now?

It has been said that mistakes are unavoidable and, therefore, complaints are a natural part of service delivery. Indeed, even if firms did not make mistakes, complaints might arise. How? Because satisfaction is a function of customer’ expectations – so, if service falls below unreasonably high customer expectations, the customer may perceive it as a service failure… and complain.

It is very important to develop a structure where customers choose to voice their dissatisfaction directly to the firm. The first component of that structure is access, as discussed here. The second is interaction, the focus of this post.

What does research tell us about success factors in customer-firm interaction following a complaint?

The complaint is taken seriously and the process is fair
Research shows that customers judge the actual complaint management process separately from the outcome of that same process. Hence, if you want to increase the probability of recovering from an unsatisfactory exchange, you should take the process very, very seriously. In particular, complainants care whether the outcome is the result of a serious and fair interaction between the firm and the customer.

The challenge for the firm is that ‘fairness’ is a subjective and dynamic concept. It is influenced by our own past experiences and by our observations of others’ experiences. In today’s technical and cultural environment, customers readily share information about their consumption experiences though blogs, status updates, etc. Consequently, complaining customers have a widening base of experiences to compare themselves against and to influence their expectations.

My colleague Bang Nguyen has been doing some really interesting work on the role of customisation and perceptions of unfairness. More information here and here.

Ability to influence the decision
Complaining customers accept the decision better when they have been involved in the process.

This is not to say that customers should be given an open menu of possible outcomes. Indeed, too much choice can lead to anxiety, rather than customer satisfaction, as discussed by Barry Schwartz in this TED talk:

The key is to involve customers in the process. In particular, customers value being able to refute or appeal the decision.

Employees are competent and interested
Perceived employee competence is an important variable in the customer-firm interaction. It gives customers a sense of security, a sense that staff will be able to handle and ultimately solve their problem.

Moreover, complaining customers value employees who are genuinely friendly, courteous, honest, listen carefully, who are open to suggestions and are willing to help.

In summary, they don’t want to feel like they are ‘talking to the hand’, as in Dave Carroll’s experience with United Airlines (check minute 0:49!)

Handling customer complaints effectively does not substitute for good service delivery, in the first place. However, it is a very important component of the company’s actions in the marketplace. It is an integral part of customer relationship management and it should be approached strategically.

I am writing a report on best practice in handling (positive and negative) customer feedback in a multichannel world. I would like to hear from you:

“In your view, which firms handle customer interactions on Social Media really well (both negative and positive incidents)? And why?”

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