Seven key practices to successfully handling complaints
Customer expectations regarding complaint handling have never been higher - and are at odds with the standard they are receiving in many cases. As such, Matthew Hendy of Charter UK, writing for our sister site, MyCustomer.com, outlined the seven key practices that have been adopted by leading companies to successfully handle complaints. 
By Matthew Hendy, Charter UK
In today's consumer climate, customers' expectations regarding the efficient handling of complaints are higher than ever. An instant, worldwide communication capability is now part of our everyday lives and this has led us to expect an almost instant resolution to our problems. In fact, over 50 percent of customers expect complaints made over the phone to be resolved in a single day - and this against a backdrop of an industry average 10-day service level agreement (SLA).
Furthermore, consumers are reporting that the biggest eroders of trust and satisfaction include a failure to keep promises, the unavailability of staff to take calls, and the non-return of calls. These are challenges that the top companies are exploiting whilst other's inability to do so is killing their business.
So, in light of these somewhat alarming findings, businesses need to assess whether their complaint management strategy is aligned with their consumers' expectations. Here are seven key practices that have been adopted by leading companies to successfully handle complaints, using technology to ease their customer contact headaches.
- Get your customers to complain!
It is a fact that less than 5 percent of customers who have experienced a problem with a business will ever actually make that complaint to the company. Although, internally, this might paint a picture of a business with a great service record and happy customers, the damage that it can actually be doing to your company - and your brand - is vast. However, if you can encourage your customers to voice their complaints, you have a chance to resolve the problem and to turn them into an advocate. After all, 90 percent of consumers who have a complaint satisfactorily resolved will actively promote your brand for you.
It is therefore essential that you make it easy for customers to complain and don't follow the recent example of the telephony company who would only accept written complaints from customers.
General Motors' research project into its customer base highlighted the value that complaining customers can make to a business. GM discovered that for every 100 people that had experienced a problem, 60 didn't make a complaint. More alarmingly however, of those 60 people, 54 would defect and only 6 would repurchase. Conversely, from the 40 who did complain, 32 repurchased and only 8 defected. Their solution to this issue was simple; firstly, use technology to open and manage as many customer communication channels as possible, and secondly, encourage customers to complain.
- Find out what the customer wants
Once a complaint has been made, the way that it is then processed and handled is integral to the customer's end satisfaction. It is therefore essential that you know what the customer wants to achieve as a result of making a complaint, as it is not always what you were expecting. The Customer Care Alliance discovered that 49 percent of complainants were seeking an apology as a result of their grievance and only 19 percent were aiming for a refund or similar action.
Very few businesses ask the customer what they want. Instead, they assume consumers want refunds and compensation when in fact all it can take is a simple apology.
- Provide a rapid response
Simple really, resolving complaints quickly (as opposed to just resolving complaints) has a huge impact on the customer's resultant satisfaction. In fact, the speed of resolution can positively impact customer satisfaction by in excess of 25 percent.
However, the challenge is how to join up the different business departments and managers that may need to be consulted and be able to deal with correspondence in an efficient and timely manner. Technology has a large role to play in the efficient handling of customer complaints as a large utility company recently experienced.
The company was discovering that handling consumer complaints was a long drawn out process as the resolution of each complaint depends upon expert input from many different internal and external parties. In addition, communication was often conducted by fax so was therefore unreliable and not tracked. As a result the firm risked widespread consumer dissatisfaction and large fines from the regulator who had stipulated that penalties would be imposed on companies who did not deal with customer complaints in a timely manner.
The company therefore implemented an enterprise complaint and feedback management system across the whole business enabling visibility and tracking of complaints. The end result has been that the organization is now more customer-focused and complaints are dealt with efficiently ensuring a substantial increase in customer satisfaction and a better relationship with the regulator.
- Ownership and accountability
Being able to declare who is going to resolve the customer's issue and how it will be resolved will give the customer instant confidence that you are actually going to do something about it. Proactivity is known to improve customer satisfaction.
Technology can be used to influence the intelligent routing of complaints, ensure service level management and agreements are followed, and automate procedures. As soon as a complaint is logged, a consumer can instantly be informed who is taking care of complaint, what process will be taken, and how long it'll take - music to the consumer's ears.
- Keeping promises
If unrealistic promises are made, or if they require a group of people to keep them, they are very often broken. However, by implementing the right software, companies can make the complaint handling process task-orientated and therefore provide each member in the chain with a holistic view of what needs to done and how long is left before the process needs to be completed. Promises made to customers can be enforced internally by automatic escalation alerts that will flag potential issues if a problem has arisen in the complaint handling chain. Furthermore, each manager can be provided with their own control center which gives them a complete view of what complaints are outstanding and the ability to reroute workloads accordingly.
However, the key to keeping promises is to only make promises that can be kept in the first place! Keeping promises is key to gaining - and keeping - the trust and loyalty of your customers.
- Be proactive
Customers who complain are usually not representative of the total customer base. Companies therefore need to be proactive and identify business problems based on the profile of complaints that they receive. By taking this approach you can identify potential problem customers and target them accordingly. For example, if a customer has made a complaint stating that her phone line isn't working, common sense would suggest that other customers in the same road could be potentially experiencing the same problem. By proactively engaging customers you can draw out a complaint that may not have been issued and therefore tomorrow's customer doesn't experience the same problem and the business can learn and grow.
- Evidence what you've done!
It is essential that you produce a customer retention report that records all the steps you have taken to fix individual customer problems and to fix the root causes of those problems. This report should provide a detailed analysis of the efforts of a customer service team and actual figures for the customer satisfaction and retention rates that these efforts have generated.
Producing this report will ensure senior executive buy-in to the process. Once the benefits are well documented and supported by evidence, the leading companies have experienced greater levels of investment in, and executive support for the customer service function. This has, in turn, increased customer focus and had a further positive impact on customer satisfaction and retention. It is an upward spiral that starts with a desire and ability to demonstrate how you have made a difference.
Matthew Hendy is head of product development at Charter UK.