Don't Avoid Complaints, Invite Them!
You may not like chronic complainers. Few of us do. But as a small business owner you should learn to cherish complaints. Especially customer complaints.
You can't fix problems that you don't know about. Far better to have a customer who complains than to have one who is upset, but never tells you. When a customer complains, we have an opening to listen and to salvage the relationship.
Contrast this to what happens with dissatisfied customers who never voice their complaints. Often our first inkling that something is wrong is when we lose the customer to a competitor.
Benefitting from an Early Heads-Up
What every business needs, then, is an early warning system to alert us when customer discontent is afoot. I often describe this type of system by using an analogy from my Navy career.
As an intelligence officer, I occasionally interfaced with members of a unique team in the Pentagon. In Navy-speak they were called the "I&W shop," short for Indications and Warnings. They monitored activities around the globe, looking for early tell-tale signs of gathering danger. Their goal was to give us an opportunity to react quickly to adverse developments, while any impending crisis was still manageable.
Complaints can serve a similar "heads-up" function in your business. They alert you to discontent that you are unlikely to discover any other way. And the earlier you become aware of the complaint, the greater your chance to remedy the underlying problem without unduly losing customers.
Treat Complaints as an Ally
To establish an early warning system in your business, three guidelines are critical. First, you must think of complaints as your ally, your friend. Not all complaints, necessarily. After all, some people simply enjoy complaining. They seem determined to find something to complain about, no matter what we do.
But most people are cut from a different fabric. They don't typically complain just to complain. Their complaints come from genuine discontent and deserve our respect and a thoughtful hearing.
We must therefore overcome any tendency to be frightened of complaints. Remember what adults told us in childhood about policemen and firemen? "The policeman is our friend. The fireman is our friend." For small business owners the admonition is, "Complaints are our friend."
Set Defensiveness Aside
Second, we must learn to set defensiveness aside when someone complains. It's easy to interpret complaints as an attack on our competency or skill. Viewed this way, complaints bruise our ego. Our knee-jerk reaction is to defend ourselves and to treat the complaint defensively, dismissively, or both.
Yet, it's all but impossible to be defensive and at the same time listen carefully. Instead of truly listening, we direct our attention toward formulating a response. And even though we may not say it aloud, in our mind we are labeling the complaint as unfounded, ill-informed, or otherwise less than legitimate.
Even if this label is correct, even if the complaint is indeed largely illegitimate, within it there may be nuggets of valuable insight just waiting to be heard. Defensiveness, however, will cause us to miss them.
Moreover, complaints reveal the other party's perceptions. And for all of us, perception is reality. Dismissing a complaint does nothing to change the perception behind it. Thus, for the complaining party the problem is still real. And in our defensiveness we have left the customer's upset unaddressed.
Third, if you're going to use complaints as an early warning system, then you need steady input into the system. Don't be bashful about giving people opportunities to complain.
One of my clients, a mortgage banking company, incorporated a series of "customer touches" into their loan processing. At critical stages of the process the customer received an email with timely updates on the progress of the loan. The email outlined what would happen next and indicated any adjustments to the loan's time line.
Included in these touches was an invitation for customers to complain. Rather than waiting until the loan had funded to ask for a customer evaluation, feedback was sought regularly throughout the process. "Are we meeting your expectations? Are we giving you sufficient information? Is there something we've overlooked that would be helpful to you?"
The goal was not to get a response from every customer. Many borrowers, if not most, never took the time to offer detailed feedback. But the purpose was to give the customer a user-friendly invitation to sound an alert that dissatisfaction was setting in. It's far easier to correct a problem in the course of the process than to regain a customer whose disillusionment takes them in search of another provider.
Seek Employee Complaints, Too
You should make similar overtures to employees. Ask them occasionally, "If you could fix one thing around here, what would it be?" Don't just ask, "How could we improve? How could we make things better?"
These last two question may give you helpful feedback. But the feedback is unlikely to be as detailed and specific as the answer to what needs to be fixed. Anything that needs "fixing" is a problem. And it's problems — not missed opportunities for improvement — that cost us customers, clients, and employees.
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