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How Companies Often Miss the Point on Customer Complaints

In my work on customer experience, I often observe that complaints are a much-ignored source of improvement by many organizations. There are many reasons for this: we don’t like to think our products and services will be complained about, and when things do go wrong, we don’t want to shout about it either internally or externally. Additionally, people don’t like to complain, so there’s a sense that if you pay attention to the complaints, you are somehow ignoring the dissatisfied non-complainers who might just drift away.

I disagree with this: complaints are a rich source of customer experience data and an opportunity to turn a seriously dissatisfied customer into an advocate for your organization. And while I, like many other people, don’t like to complain much, I have a professional interest in how organizations deal with me when things do go wrong. Below, I will share a recent story about a service gone wrong, as it illustrates much about how not to deliver a great customer experience and what we can learn from it.

You keep me hanging on

Earlier this year, my wife was driving to the other side of London. It was 6:30 p.m. and she was in central London, when the car engine cut out. My wife was able to park up in a side street (conveniently opposite a branch of Nando’s), so things could have been worse. But then she called our breakdown service provider (the AA) and things took a different turn.

To cut a long story short, we were originally told that a recovery vehicle would be with us at 8:30 p.m., possibly earlier, although a confirmatory text quoted 8:50 p.m. At 9:00 p.m., there was no message from the AA and no breakdown vehicle, so I called (by this time I had joined her in Nando’s) and was quoted another 25 minutes. 9:40 p.m. and still no sign of the breakdown vehicle, so I called again to be told that it would take another 25 minutes and that “there are a lot of breakdowns this evening across the country.”

At 10:05 p.m., the recovery vehicle finally arrived. However, despite diagnosing a flat battery, the “recovery partner” didn’t recover my vehicle but merely phoned in a request for someone to recover me home. This process took another two hours (and more calls to the AA) and eventually a highly competent patrolman turned up and got me home nearly 7 hours after the breakdown.

The AA clearly failed this loyal customer (since 2008 and on and off before then) on two of the basic principles of good customer experience:

  • Managing the customer’s expectations
  • Keeping the customer informed.

With my cover due for renewal, I decided to have a conversation with the AA about how they could compensate me for the inconvenience and lapse in their otherwise excellent service. So, a few days later I called their “Customer Solutions” line.

Don’t leave me this way

While my time invested in this exercise didn’t match the epic wait that was the root cause of my complaint, it still took over 20 minutes to get through and express my displeasure.

Despite me quoting my membership number, the agent requested all my details, including those relating to the incident in question. “Don’t you have access to all this on your system?” I asked. Apparently not: the complaints are captured on a separate system. I waited patiently while the operator transcribed my recollection of the events.

I finished by stating – since clearly the information wasn’t on her system – that my membership was up for renewal before the end of June, so the resolution of this issue was probably in the AA’s interests. I was told that I would receive an acknowledgement within five working days and then the standard resolution time was up to eight weeks, although they were mostly clearing them up within 21 days. (This apparent display of hyper-efficiency didn’t impress me that much.)

There was a further impersonal twist to this tale. My wife was driving at the time of the breakdown, so it was “her” incident. She’d asked me to report it as a) she was too busy with other things and b) I’m a customer experience expert, which means that this falls within my remit. However, the following day I received an email saying that, because of GDPR, the AA would have to deal with my wife on this matter. My wife also received a voice message saying the “final response” (no right of appeal then?) would be with her in 7 to 10 days. She then emailed them giving her permission to deal with me, but this made no difference.

The reason it may have made no difference was that the AA’s response came back sooner than expected and, good news, the complaint “had been upheld” and a small compensatory payment was on its way (which just about covered our restaurant bill and taxi fare). This time, the AA had in fact exceeded the expectations they had set.

Despite first deciding not to renew my cover with the AA — since I was unhappy with the service and the way my complaint had been handled — I ended up with cover via my car insurance provider, which turned out to be much cheaper — and also provided by the AA.

Lessons learned

Leaving aside this quirk of modern commerce, we can draw some lessons from this sorry tale. Below, I highlight five do’s and don’ts that, if followed, will turn your complaints department into a source of value for your organization.

1.     Don’t hide behind the process

Organization view: we’ll investigate your complaint and respond in x weeks.

Customer view: I’ve been inconvenienced/upset/hurt and I want a response NOW!

Process, process, process – I’ve reengineered a few business processes in my time, but whether they’re old and creaky or new and streamlined, there will always be an elapsed time and effort required to execute them. However, dissatisfied customers are not remotely interested in these matters: they want their complaint sorted as soon as possible. From the organization’s point of view that might not be possible for all kinds of reasons and so it makes sense to get that formalized into timescales and to set expectations. That’s reasonable, but there’s a fine line between having a process and making the customer feel they’ve been shoehorned into it. In my case, presenting me with the timescales did a good job of lowering my expectations – the AA responded well within them – but also increased my dissatisfaction with what was going on.

2.     Empower frontline staff to make decisions

When I contacted the AA with my complaint, my naïve expectation was that perhaps the person I spoke to would be able to deal directly with my complaint and make an offer of recompense there and then. If the person I spoke to could have had access to the record of my dealings with the AA on the night in question, then it’s possible that could have happened; instead, the agent’s job was simply to take down the details.

It would arguably have taken less of my time to just report online and clearly would tie up less agent time. However, resolution at first point of contact – as is the case with most agent interactions – is almost always the most satisfactory from the customer point of view and then means the transaction is not hanging around in a workflow.

3.     Be human, not legalistic

The tone of the communication I received from the AA built on the process-orientation of their complaint handling approach. The clincher for me was the letter (sent to my wife) but copied to me after she had given permission.

“I have now closed our file, and this is my final response. If you are unhappy with this, our final response, you may wish to contact a competent Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) provider such as the National Conciliation Service: https://www.nationalconciliationservice.co.uk/  Please note, however, that the AA is not obliged to subscribe to ADR and as we believe that we have dealt fairly with your complaint we do not intend to subscribe to ADR in this case.”

So, in other words, take it or leave it. Now, I was happy with the compensation offered so I wasn’t likely to go to ADR – although, as a customer complaints nerd, I was tempted to do it just to find out – but is it necessary to hammer the point home like that? At this point, the AA didn’t know that I was likely to leave, and the tone of this response was hardly likely to induce me to stay.

4.     Move from satisfaction to delight (and measure it)

It’s clear to me from the handling of my complaint that the organization was just interested in managing it in terms of the process with no interest in how I felt about it as a customer. This is a mistake that most companies continue to make. When I talk to clients about it, I introduce the idea of the customer hierarchy of needs (shamelessly ripped off from the work of Abraham Maslow). The diagram below summarizes it:

The complainer’s hierarchy of needs © Nick Bush 2021

What I find is that many companies are content to get to level 3 (“Sort it out”) and ignore the value added by delighting customers. Once you take them to level 4 and 5 you retain their business (invariably less expensive than finding new customers) and turn them into advocates for your organization.

It also depends on what you measure. If process compliance and dealing with complaints within the timescale is your measure of success, then you’ll only measure up to level 3 in my model. If you look at retention and satisfaction, then you’ll focus more on the outcomes relevant to the business and to the customer.

5.     Learn from the mistake

Long ago in a galaxy far away a wise being once said “The greatest teacher, failure is” and despite not being a practicing Jedi, I very much subscribe to this view. I can’t claim any insight into how the AA used the information about my original poor service, but I’d like to think that the performance of the subcontractor and their ability to capacity plan and deal with spikes in demand received some attention from their root cause analysis team.

Not everything in your list of customer complaints will indicate a systemic error but regular reviews of complaints data should highlight what is wrong with customer-facing processes or the back office that supports them and fixing those can save money.

Ignoring the wealth of data in your customer complaints is a wasted opportunity.

Nick Bush consults to commercial and non-profit organizations on customer-centric change.  He is also the director of the Centre for Management Consulting Excellence.

About the author

Nick Bush
Nick Bushhttps://www.cmce.org.uk/
Nick Bush is a consultant who helps organizations implement customer-centric change and also leads the Centre for Management Consulting Excellence.


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