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Gosh, we really don’t get many complaints about that…

Handling complaints effectively by Giulia De Cesare, Senior Trainer at Plain Words

Complaints? What complaints?

Nobody likes to admit to customers that they get a lot of complaints about a specific point, or that they get a lot of complaints in general. In fact, it's standard advice to people who deal with complaints to avoid saying anything like, “Oh, you're the sixth person today to ring up about that.”

But what happens if you are required by law to publish the number of complaints you receive? And the results can be compared with those of your competitors.

This is the type of thing that concentrates the mind and gives you an incentive to raise your game. So how can you do this?

Start by listening carefully, then ask the right questions and finally plan your reply. Read on for my top tips.

Get the facts straight at the start. When recording complaints, staff should note:

  1. The complainant's full name and contact details, and their preferred contact method (phone, email, letter)
  2. What the complaint is, including:
    • Dates
    • Places
    • People involved (full names and contact details)
    • What happened next
  3. What the complainant's preferred resolution is (although you should not suggest that they will receive this).

Question styles that work for getting complaint information

When dealing with a complaint you are asking for information. Some sorts of questions work better than others. Here are the kinds of questions that will get the most detailed answers and show that you are paying attention.

Open-ended questions, starting with a ‘w’ word, for example:

Question styles to use with caution when handling complaints

Another couple of words are often suggested in lists like this: how and why. These are also useful but they can possibly draw the complainant into making interpretations rather than just giving facts.

‘Yes’ or ‘No’ questions?

People are often told to avoid closed questions, where the answer can be a plain ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Although a barrage of these sounds like an interrogation, there are times when a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer is all you want so do use closed questions when appropriate.

Question styles to avoid when handling complaints

Some ways to ask things can give the wrong impression. Look out for questions starting with, “You said…”, “You claimed…”, “You stated…” because these can sound confrontational, as if the questioner doubts what was being said, claimed or stated.

Don't ask confrontational questions

A similar impression is produced by questions ending in tags such as, “Didn’t you?”, “Could you?”, “Have you?” and so on. You may feel they are just a neutral speech mannerism but to a customer who is already angry or tense about something, it can seem as if you are badgering them.

Avoid ‘leading questions’

Leading questions are those worded in such a way as to suggest the answer the questioner is waiting to hear: “So you weren't very happy about this?”, “Were you in a hurry when you opened the box?”, “Were you running late when you left?”

Let them use their own words

Customers with complaints want to tell you about them in their own words, not to go along with your assumptions. And if you make a wrong assumption, there's the risk they'll be annoyed, decide you weren't listening and go right back to the beginning.

Not saying anything – keep contact with the customer

When would you not say anything at all? If you are on the phone, your silence as you write madly or consider things can lead the customer to wonder whether they have been cut off.

Avoid this by making the occasional sound like, “Mm,” “I see,” or “Uh huh.” This shows you are still there and paying attention.

Emails and letters to customers about complaints

When writing to customers about complaints, you have to take care with wording, grammar, spelling and punctuation.

People who are already annoyed will seize on any mistakes they find to justify their attitude that you are incompetent. And if a complaint is complex, it's very easy to get bogged down in too much information.

Avoid this by planning your reply using the same words that helped you to gather information:

Keep the customer happy

Remember that a happy customer may tell three people about their experience with you but an unhappy one could share their problems with up to ten. That's the kind of word-of-mouth that you have to get right.

Build a good relationship with your customers

Dealing with complaints effectively can build a good relationship with your customers, save money by avoiding their escalation, and earn repeat business. Don't leave it to chance!

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