Those of us who’ve had responsibility for complaints management at one time or another will have experienced a full spectrum of complainant behaviour. From tears to anger, humility to assertiveness; those dealing with complaints will see it all at some point in their career.
For many, this is one of the motivations for taking on a customer service role – making a real difference to the customer who’s had a particularly raw deal. Being able to sort out a problem and see a fellow human being move from anger to gratitude is something that reminds us why we took on the job in the first place.
It can be an emotional experience for people at the front line of complaints. The rewards are equally matched (and frequently outweighed) by harder times that test personal resilience.
What are some of the essential tips that help the customer service managers and their teams cope with the complex challenges of complaints?
1: Customers are human too: respect their feelings and situations
We often hear the phrase “put yourself in the customer’s shoes”. This is more than just a catchphrase when it comes to complaints management – it’s a make or break first contact rule.
Brushing up on your interpersonal skills – particularly around active listening – will help you give the customer the space they need when they contact you with their complaint. We’ve all experienced the angry customer seemingly on a raging tirade about their problem the moment you’ve picked up the call.
Empathy is more than just a word, it’s an attitude that’ll come through in your voice and tone. Giving your customer the time to explain, to let their emotions dissipate and make sure you’re having a rational, adult conversation will help – you need to reason with them, not argue with their emotions.
Your first reaction to a complainant, like no other ‘moment of truth’, has the potential to cause a customer to either defuse or explode.
Tip 1: Active listening skills are essential for building rapport with a complainant.
2: Understand people’s reasons for complaining
People have a range of motivations for complaining and you can’t assume every customer’s motives are the same. If you’ve followed tip 1, you’ll probably have started picking up the clues of what’s affecting this particular customer. They’re an individual. Their feelings are unique, even if the situation is one you may have seen before.
Behavioural research [Richens (1982)] has identified six common motivating factors for customers typically complaining. You need to understand the individual circumstances – whether it’s complaining to solve a problem, or wanting to make it right for the next customer. Understanding what the customer wants to happen is critical to a successful resolution.
Tip 2: Keep your assumptions to a minimum. Ask the customer what they’re looking for that will successfully resolve the complaint in their view.
3: Manage your own reactions – it’s professional, not personal
All this empathy can be tiring! It’s a skill, and a challenging one at that. This is why complaints management can be such a rewarding step in your career development.
You’ll need to learn how to manage your own reaction to all sorts of tough situations. It might be a simple procedural issue, or a complex and sensitive complaint with serious emotional impacts on everyone.
If you’re facing a persistent complainant, they can be a whole different situation and test your emotions to the extreme. Research by Lester (1984) has identified a typically higher incidence of threats of violence, retribution and suicide from persistent complainants, so there’s no limit to what you might be faced with.
Tip 3: Understand your own behaviour and reactions. What do you need to cope with complex and emotional complaints and manage your own wellbeing?
4: Prepare your support networks – how do I solve the tricky problems?
Many complaints, whilst individual, may not be a surprise to you. Your organisation should have a way of dealing with complaints and resolving known problems. Being familiar with the policies and procedures that are in place to help you is vital to handling complaints effectively.
For the tricky complaints, where do you go for help? What if you need to escalate a caller to your supervisor or another senior manager? How can you get hold of them when you need to?
Make sure you have the tools, referrals, support tools and networks in place so you’re ready to give the complainant as smooth an experience as possible.
Remember the six P’s: prior preparation and planning prevents poor performance.
What about you? What support do you need to cope with your own emotions? What’s the support network you have in place – be it personal, professional or emotional.
Research by Bell & Luddington (2006) has shown that complaints can have a negative impact on customer service staff’s commitment to customer service. The support networks you have in place are the way you’ll keep a positive culture of customer service from being eroded by the negative impact of complaints.
Tip 4: Be prepared! Remember the six P’s. Have your networks, processes and personal coping strategies ready in advance of dealing with complaints.
5: Don’t let the last customer’s problem become the next caller’s concern
Closely related to tip 3, this is an important point to re-state. The concept of ‘emotional contagion’ has been identified in research as a known factor affecting customer service staff [Dallimore, Sparks & Butcher, 2007].
Essentially, customers can transfer their anger to the customer service staff member they’re speaking to – who in turn transfers its impact to the customer they deal with next.
When you’ve finished dealing with a difficult customer, think about how you’ll prepare yourself for a new caller with a completely different situation.
Tip 5: Pause. Don’t let the last customer’s situation inadvertantly spill over into forming the next customer’s first impression.