Complaints offer opportunities

Complaints from customers are opportunities in disguise. "Oh sure", you sneer..."and I suppose personal failure is ‘character building’, too!"

I admit, I was skeptical when I heard Margo Redmond-a writing expert from Madison, Wisconsin-explain the concept, but before her seminar was over, I was a believer. Part of Redmond's seminar, "Write For Results-Letters and Memos" is designed to teach business people to do just that-get mileage from complaints.

Most of us have heard about the studies that show complainers will tell 10 people about their dissatisfaction, while those who are satisfied will generally tell only five about their experience.

This is only part of the story. Research sponsored by the White House Office of Consumer Affairs yields some interesting statistics. For every one complaint, there are likely to be 26 silent ones-six of which are very serious.

But what about the "opportunities"? Surprisingly, the same research shows complainers are more likely to do business with your organization again, even if they are dissatisfied. This is because those who complain are two to five times more loyal than those who say nothing. Rather than simply switching to your competitor, they will let you know how you have let them down.

If their complaint is mishandled, you will be adding insult to injury. However, if you satisfy a complainer, 54 to 70 percent will do business with you again. In fact, brand loyalty will increase. They will probably say to themselves, "See! I knew they were worth the energy."

"When you receive a complaint, you're in a power position," says Redmond. "You can be in control rather than the person who is emotionally raging." Here are some of Redmond's guidelines for responding to a written complaint: First, make three assumptions:

1.      The complaint may have some merit.

2.      The complainer's hostility is situational and not typical of him or her.

3.      The complainer, if handled properly, may "forgive and forget."

  • Respond promptly. Avoiding it or ignoring it will either lose the customer or make it worse. For example, the next letter may go to your boss.
  • Often send a longer letter than you received. If you respond with a paragraph, you will be perceived as uncaring and curt.
  • Welcome the complaint. "Thank you for alerting us to the problem with your ..."
  • Don't begin with praise and positives. It gets expectations up only to dash their hopes later in the letter. This will really get them angry.
  • Offer an early and "active-voice" apology, if appropriate. "Please forgive our delayed response to your prior letter." is much better than "Be advised that your prior correspondence, which regretfully was not answered ..."
  • Use a conversational style, not a formal one. For example, contractions such as "can't" sound much friendlier than "can not."
  • Offer sympathy or empathy. "I can certainly understand your frustration."
  • Agree with whatever you can and recognize the complainer's right to his or her feelings. "You are correct about..." "You shouldn't have received the kind of treatment you describe."
  • Offer an explanation but not at the beginning of the letter. Make it short and sweet or you'll sound defensive or full of excuses.
  • Offer an alternative, small gesture of compensation, or future incentive, even if unable to offer all that is asked.
  • Close on a positive note or at least a neutral one. 

Now that you have some ideas for responding to complainers, let's look at some words that can inflame a complainer even if your intentions are good. See if you can spot the word(s) that wound (the answers are at the end):

1.      "You claim in your letter that the product..."

2.      "Contrary to your description of the situation..."

3.      "We regret when anybody has a problem with our product."

4.      "We are surprised to learn of the problem..."

5.      "Mistakes are bound to happen..."

6.      "Be advised that we take every care..."

7.      "You failed to provide us with the code number."

8.      "Kindly send us the date of purchase."

9.      "We are of the opinion that the problem..."

10. "If at fault, we will refund the money."

11.  "It is the policy of our company..."

12.  "Frankly, we believe our service was adequate."

13.  "An adjustment in this case would be inappropriate."

14.  "We trust this explanation has satisfied..."

1.claim 2.contrary 3.anybody 4.surprised 5.bound advised 7.failed 8.kindly 9.of the opinion 10. if at fault is the policy 12.frankly/adequate 13.inappropriate 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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