Get results when you complain

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Once the famous Chicago merchant Marshall Field was walking through his Chicago store and heard one of his clerks arguing with a customer.

“What are you doing?” he asked the clerk.

“I'm settling a customer complaint,” said the clerk.

“No, you're not,” said Field. “Give the customer what she wants.”

Is the customer always right?  If you are a business owner, the answer most always is yes.  Otherwise, they aren’t customers.  They are people who do business with someone else.

Years ago I saw a study for Travelers Insurance that showed persuading people to complain could be, in fact, the best business move a company could make.  Only 9 percent of the noncomplainers with a gripe involving $100 or more would buy from the company again.  On the other hand, when people did complain and their problems were resolved quickly, an impressive 82 percent would buy again.

I have a philosophy about customers – ours or anyone else's.  A customer who has a good experience with a company will tell five other people.  But a customer who has a bad experience will tell 15 other people, and with social media today it can become tens of thousands.  So anything I can do to decrease the bad while increasing the good is right at the top of my agenda.

Part of that philosophy assumes that you will get a second chance.  If you get that chance, don’t mess it up.  You may be looking at the best customer you’ve ever imagined.  

Customers can also be your best teachers.  True, you often learn a lesson the hard way.  But it’s an education in Customer Service 101 that you won’t learn in any school.

Stew Leonard, founder of a famous chain of supermarkets in Connecticut and New York, said:  “Customers who complain are your friends because they are giving you a chance to improve instead of just walking away.”

No one likes to hear that they have done a lousy job, but criticism from customers is more valuable than praise.  You want your customers to tell you when you screwed up, so that you can take care of the problem and take steps to insure that it doesn't happen again – to them or anyone else.  If they don't tell you, they will walk away and they'll never come back.  Worse, you are likely to alienate someone else in the future by doing exactly the same thing.

To paraphrase a famous line, ask not what your customer can do for you, ask what you can do for your customer.

Now put the shoe on the other foot.  Think like a customer.  Stop to consider whether your own customers are receiving fair treatment.   

When you have a complaint, you want it addressed quickly and fairly.  When you approach the problem from the customer’s side, the view is quite different.  

As consumers ourselves, we should be able to expect a satisfactory result.  When you don’t get what you paid for, agree to, contract for, or reasonably should expect, you should look for a resolution to the problem.  And you should give the vendor the opportunity to fix it.  Isn’t that what you would want your customers to do?  Remember, most reputable companies want to make the customer happy.  

I recommend following these steps:   

  • Determine the solution you want.  Do you want a replacement, your money back, or some other remedy?  Be specific so you can convey from the start that you expect a resolution to the problem.
  • Start in the right place.  Don’t go to the CEO of the company until you’ve exhausted the lower rungs.  Customer service is usually the best place to start.  If customer service can’t help you, ask to speak with a manager next.
  • Target where to take your complaint next.  Don’t just call headquarters and voice your complaint to the receptionist.  Find out who has the authority to address your complaint.  
  • Control your emotions.  When you’re overwhelmed with frustration, vent your anger in a letter – but wait a few days to decide whether to send or rewrite it.  Humorous complaint letters are more likely to get noticed and acted upon.  Also, remember to single out those employees who tried to help.  Praise can be just as effective as criticism.
  • Keep copies of all correspondence.  A good record of your attempts to resolve the problem can be helpful if you ultimately need to take legal action.


Mackay’s Moral:  If a business knows what’s good for it, it knows what’s good for a customer. 

By Harvey Mackay

To your success,

Harvey Mackay


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