Handle Customer Complaints Like a Champ

Sales pros who’ve been in the trenches give their advice on turning customer complaints into a comeback.

Mistakes happen. Even in companies with exemplary customer service programs, it’s inevitable that a customer, at sometime, will be unhappy. With all the moving parts inherent in advertising specialties promotions, it can seem like issues are just waiting to crop up.

“You have systems and processes in place to prevent issues from happening,” says Brad White, Director of Promotional Marketing at Standard Register (asi/333647). “But we’re in the customization business and the time-sensitive business and we also use third-party vendors – so things are going to happen!”

The good news is that when customers complain, it’s really a gesture that says they want to continue working with you.
"In a way, every complainer is saying ’you messed up – I want to help you succeed’," says Ron Kaufman, author of the New York Times bestseller Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet.

So what’s the best way to turn a "wrong" into a "right?"  Is it possible to have an even stronger client relationship after you solve the problem? (Luckily, the answer is yes!) And how can you improve your company’s customer service procedures to avoid problems from happening in the first place? Here are steps to take today.

Be an Effective First Responder

If you’re the first person to react at the scene of the disaster, you need a foolproof plan of action. Start by thanking the complainer for the opportunity to improve.

“Show appreciation for the complainer’s time, effort, communication, feedback and suggestions,” says Kaufman, who adds the person has not chosen to go viral and, with a few clicks, damage your reputation. Nor did they simply take their business to a competitor. Instead, they’re giving you a second chance.

It’s easy to become defensive when presented with an upset person – so strive to show empathy. To get in a positive frame of mind before handling a complaint, Kaufman says it helps to realize that often complainers are fighting for their rights because they’ve experienced poor customer service in the past. Remember that you can pleasantly surprise them. One advertising specialties veteran advises getting in a positive mood by looking at photos of loved ones on your desk and to “wear a smile” before picking up the phone.

“The client is going to see the smile and hear the levity in your voice and that will help to calm the client down before they start barking,” says Ray McKee (asi/334913), owner of Star-Spangled Specialties in Roanoke, VA.
Listening is a key component of that initial response. "That’s why I have two ears and one mouth," says McKee. "If I can give that much more attention to listening and less attention to speaking, it gives the client the opportunity to vent out all that they’re concerned about. Then when I do talk, they’re going to listen."

Another pro agrees with the importance of being attentive in order to hear the whole story. "You really have to listen because the answer to their complaint is going to be in their story," says Lucinda McNeil promotional marketing consultant with Brown & Bigelow (asi/148500), based in Phoenix, AZ.

McNeil says that while you may have other pressing projects, the complaining customer needs to feel they are your first priority. “If you don’t deal with that complaint, they’re going to go out and tell 10 people,” says McNeil.

The importance of listening was made clear to McNeil in her previous job in city government where citizens complained frequently. A lesson from a training workshop stuck with her – that true listening means you are not thinking of your response. Instead, you repeat back the customer’s concern to ensure you have it right.

Solve the Problem

“The longer something goes without being resolved, the more pain piles on,” says White, who begins figuring out solutions as soon as he’s aware of a problem.

“I like to have a couple of different possible solutions in mind before I speak to the client,” says White. “I might adjust those solutions based on their feedback. But I don’t want to have a ’let’s figure it out meeting,’ I want to be already working on steps to fix this.”

McKee keeps a detailed paper trail both to complete projects accurately and to track down the source of any problems. “Be attentive to details in the beginning of the sale,” he says. “Document and confirm by email, PDFs and proofs.”
Don’t assume the customer knows you are working on a solution. McNeil recommends to "ask the customer to give you the opportunity to make it right," so they know you are actively working on a remedy.

Become Better Partners

“I believe that being transparent and making people understand the way you do business, what your intentions are and how you would like to be responding to their problems – it’s a trust builder and a relationship builder,” says White.

Managed correctly, these business relationships can be even stronger than before. “The person who complains with all that negative energy, when they’re turned around, can actually bounce up even higher than the neutral person,” says Kaufman. “Those people can end up becoming your evangelist and your ambassadors because they’ve had a bad experience and they’ve had the experience of how you handled that.”

Kaufman says in a true partnership, both parties want the other to succeed. That’s a benefit that goes beyond being a repeat customer. “If they’re a partner, they may actually do things like come back from a conference and send you photos that they took on their phone of cool advertising specialties that they saw somebody else using at another booth that they’re interested in or they thought you should know about,” he says.

Become a better partner by being knowledgeable about your customer’s customer – what the needs are in their industry sector and how you can influence their customers and make them happy. “You want to be thinking about not just how do I sell more stuff to them but how do I actually help my customers be successful with their customers,” says Kaufman. “Then you put your brain to work thinking about the world of your customers’ customer to be able to help come up with new ideas.”

Think Long Term

“Don’t work as hard to salvage the sale but rather to maintain the client,” says McKee. He points out that trying to save the sale may result in one profit but hinder future profits.

“Forward-thinking companies know it’s not about the transaction,” says Kaufman. “They’re looking to actively cultivate a longer-term partnership with their customers.”

Other short-term thinking is blaming anyone internally – that only damages the entire company’s reputation. “If your coworker or your employees made a mistake, you hired them and you trained them so you’re still the problem,” says White, who adds he is big on taking responsibility, no matter what position you hold in a company. “I believe that when problems happen, the winner is the person who says ’it’s on me, I’ll take it.’”

Another long-term strategy is to reduce customer service problems by being selective about your customers. McKee avoids clients with a “Walmart mentality” who care only about getting the cheapest price. He favors clients who respect what he brings to the table. “Nowadays I try to get clients who understand and value me as a professional advertising specialty distributor,” he says.

Improve Your Customer Service Program

“You do not build a service culture overnight,” says Kaufman. “You have to use a methodology that makes that occur consistently and sustainable over time.”

The first step is an education where you “teach people not just train people.” Kaufman makes this distinction because not every situation can be handled with a script or mechanics.

Also, Kaufman recommends that companies define customer service with language more specific than making just customers happy.  His definition is: "Service is taking action to create value for someone else." The word "value" is key since not all customers value the same thing – some want the cheapest price, some want personal attention, while others want speed. "You don’t want to waste your company’s efforts trying to deliver value that the customer doesn’t actually value," he says.

Instead of assuming employees know customer service is important, leaders of the company or team need to communicate frequently that service is a top priority by imbedding it in the culture. The language of declaration carries strength, similar to “The Declaration of Independence” or declaring a couple married.

“If you’re the leader of an organization and you want to have culture that’s great with customer complaints or any other aspect of service, then the leadership team needs to be declaring that to everybody else on a daily basis,” says Kaufman.
Companies with strong customer service programs recognize employees for service recovery and for improving internal service. They also know how to deliver a staff orientation that makes the new hire feel lucky to be there. In Kaufman’s consulting experience, he says few companies get orientation right. However, done well, a positive orientation uplifts and motivates.

“What experience is that new person going to have in the first day, the first week, the first month that will make them go home and say I just joined the most incredible company, I am so glad that I joined that team, I’m going to give it my all,” says Kaufman.

Share your vision of service on your website and employment ads to attract candidates consistent with your spirit and purpose. Stress the importance of service with your staff so they can make good employee referrals and recommendations. Ask job seekers to share what your service vision means to them. At you can find 35 interview questions which Kaufman says will determine if an applicant has the right attitude about customer service.

Be Proactive

McNeil says it’s vital to learn from experience and to be proactive. An example: gift bags arrived at a hotel in advance of her clients’ annual conference, prompting the hotel to seek storage costs. She didn’t only solve the immediate problem – before her client’s next conference, she asked the hotel for their policy so she could avoid future problems.

“It’s one thing to make a mistake, it’s another thing to make it twice,” says White who adds that if a company is constantly improving and evolving based on their customers’ needs, mistakes can actually be a good thing. “If you want to stay a good company – you need to be responsive and improve,” he says. “A problem might someday be the thing that made you a better company.”

Susan Thomas Springer is an OR-based contributor to Advantages.