A Customer Complaint Is a Gift

This complaint-is-a-gift notion is not one that comes naturally to anyone. None of us like to hear negative feedback. But feedback is the breakfast of champions.
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"What a concept!" I marveled to myself as I read Janelle Barlow's book, A Complaint is a Gift. It's a business book about customer service and the importance of getting feedback, especially negative feedback, from customers. Barlow, and her coauthor, Claus Møller, assert that complaints are not problems to be avoided -- complaints are actually gifts to be welcomed. What a radical way to think about negative feedback!

Complaints are important for several reasons, Barlow writes:

  • You don't know how to improve your product or service if you don't know what's wrong.
  • Customer complaints can give you ideas for new products and services.
  • Complaints give you valuable information about what's important to people, what they're willing to spend money on.

Complaints also tell you that the customer still wants to do business with you -- she still cares about the relationship she has with your company and she wants you to fix the problem so she can continue to do business with you. Most customers don't complain -- they just take their business elsewhere, because they've given up hope of getting what they need from you.

The problem is, most people think that customer complaints are bad. They mistakenly think that no complaints means no problems. But as long as you're in business, you will always have problems -- it's part and parcel of doing business. The important thing to focus on is how you handle those problems when they occur.

That's why a complaint is really a gift. Just as we thank someone who gives us a birthday gift, we should thank someone who brings us a complaint. They have given us something valuable, something useful, something that can help make our business stronger and more profitable -- and we should treat their complain as the gift that it really is.

This is a great concept! I kept thinking as I read her book. And what's more, it applies not only to business, but to personal relationships as well! I thought about all the different ways that complaints come into our lives: our parents complain about some aspect of our behavior; our lovers complain when they feel neglected; our friends complain if we have a misunderstanding; our neighbors complain about a problem with our home; our children complain if they need something from us that we haven't provided. Complaints are simply a normal part of what it means to live in relationships with other people.

After reading Barlow's book, I started reacting differently when someone in my life complained to me. I learned to make the interaction a learning experience rather than a battle. I saw how to use their complaint to make our relationship better, rather than let the complaint tear us apart. If someone in my life has a complaint about my business (or me), I can be reassured by the fact that they are at least still talking to me. This tells me that they still care about our relationship and they want me to make a change so we can continue to work together. If they stop talking to me, that's when I should worry -- that's when they've given up and taken their business elsewhere.

In treating complaints as gifts, Barlow teaches a step-by-step process:

  1. Thank the person for his complaint. Tell him how much you appreciate his taking the time to tell you about his problem
  2. Tell him why you're thanking him: because you care about your relationship, and his complaint gives you an opportunity to address anything that isn't working for him.
  3. Apologize for the fact that he is unhappy. Note: You don't assume guilt or say that it is your fault; you simply say, "I'm sorry you're having this problem."
  4. Promise to do whatever you can to help solve the problem.
  5. Ask for more information or clarification or specifics so you can fully understand the source of his unhappiness.
  6. Take whatever steps you can to correct the problem -- focusing on things that are within your control. If it's something out of your control, explain that. If it is something that really has nothing to do with you at all, this is the point in the discussion when you are most likely to discover that.
  7. Ask if he feels his complaint is being addressed. If not, go back to the beginning of the process.
  8. Make sure to learn from the situation. Complaints can provide ideas for new products or services, as well as tell you about weak links in your organization.

And most important of all, always emphasize what you can do, rather than what you can't. Look for what is possible, rather than telling him what is impossible. Pointing out what you can't do simply makes you both more frustrated.

This complaint-is-a-gift notion is not one that comes naturally to anyone. None of us like to hear negative feedback. But feedback is the breakfast of champions. If we can hear what's behind the complaint -- the desire to fix something that's bothering the other person -- then we can see how their complaint really is a gift!

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