Your Customers Are Complaining. Do Something About It

I'm about to start a gut renovation of my kitchen, which, of course, is an incredibly stressful not to mention expensive project. For cabinets, we got a recommendation for a designer at a local cabinet store. We met with her, got some great ideas, and went home to wait for the quote.

After no word for a week, we reached out for an update. Several days later, she finally called and quoted a dollar amount over the phone. I was thrown off. No written quote? No detail? When I asked for more info, she emailed me a fantastic quote that included drawings and details on every component but had a slightly higher price at the end than what she'd quoted verbally. Odd. Then, as we made changes to the design, this miscommunication pattern repeated. We ultimately decided to get cabinets elsewhere.

I tell you this story not because of the customer experience lessons (such as set expectations and meet them; be transparent about your pricing; take extra care when you know an experience is stressful and involves large sums of money) but because of what happened after the bad experience. I told my parents. I told my in-laws. I told coworkers. I told some friends. Frankly, I told anyone who asked about the kitchen project.

It turns out my behavior is normal. When we surveyed consumers at the end of last year about the ways they complained about bad service experiences, we found that word of mouth is hands down the most common complaint method. Among consumers who had unsatisfactory service interactions, more than half told friends or family about their experiences.

There isn't much you can do to capture those casual conversations. But there's plenty of other feedback you can capture. A whopping 76 percent of consumers who got poor service told us that they provided feedback directly to the company through at least one of five methods (survey, phone call, email, online chat, or letter). Social feedback, though less common, is gaining in popularity; 29% of consumers used a social channel to complain, like writing reviews on companies' websites and posting updates on social networking sites.

How do you make sure you're capitalizing on all those complaints? First of all, you want to make it easy for customers to tell you when something went wrong by incorporating feedback mechanisms into all key customer scenarios. Second, you must leverage the unstructured and unsolicited feedback. That means collecting what's trapped in internal systems like call logs, emails, and chat transcripts and using technologies like text analytics to make sense of it. Those tools will also help you get value from open-ended survey comments.

Collecting the data isn't enough. Taking action is critical, and that means both closing the loop with complainers and fixing bad service at its source. Quickly responding to individual customers who provide negative feedback can build loyalty, or at least stop eroding it. But firms also need to make systemic improvements that prevent complaint-worthy problems from occurring in the first place. Look for patterns in the complaints you're receiving to see whether there are underlying processes that can be fixed, and then monitor incoming feedback to make sure the fixes are working.

So, should I tell the cabinet dealer what she did wrong? Maybe I'll just send her this post.

If you want to hear me complain in person, or if you're interested in hearing my speech on customer experience governance, join me at Outside In: A Forum For Customer Experience Professionals in Los Angeles on November 14th to 15th.


I think we need to talk.

Everyone has heard the dreaded words: I think we need to talk. In many ways, the fact that the need to talk is something that must be overtly expressed points to where the problem is.

Complaints are bad. If we think of complaints then we associate negative feelings with the interaction - a complaint means blame and failure. No one likes to be blamed or to have failed. Even "feedback" has come to be something of a euphemism.

I find it best to think instead of having a healthy relationship. The strong ones are built on honesty, openness and trust. If, rather than thinking in terms of complaints or even feedback - words that suggest a very transactional relationship - we instead think of each customer as being someone with whom we have a relationship, we can then see passed the negativity - any interaction, so long as it is honest, is a good interaction because it works towards a better relationship - even if that sometimes means ending the relationship, after all there's little point in continuing a relationship if the needs of the parties are no longer aligned. That doesn't mean failure, if anything it's a success - though that is hard to see at the time, whether it's a personal or professional relationship we're talking about.

No one likes complaints but honesty really is the best policy. What you don't know usually IS what hurts you.

A complaining customer is free consulting!

Hi Adele,

Companies should welcome customer complaints!

After all, many companies will hire consultants (no offense! ;)) to help them dissect
their business processes and customer journeys, in order to identify that which needs fixing.

Customer complaints can be viewed as "free deliverables" with a bonus: the chance to make it right for the customer, and convert a potential detractor into a loyal promoter.

By the way,I hope your kitchen is coming along nicely.

Jim Watson
Portland, Maine

"Customer complaints can be

"Customer complaints can be viewed as "free deliverables" with a bonus: the chance to make it right for the customer, and convert a potential detractor into a loyal promoter."

This right here is the real point, you've hit the nail on the head.

The opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference. If someone is complaining then that means they care. Some people just like attention or to moan but most people complain because they care and believe things should and could be done better. A complainant is not a problem, he or she is an opportunity! They may as well stroll up wearing a sign that says "I want to help you!".

A complainant is merely an ambassador waiting to be recruited.

One good reply deserves another!

Thanks Aaron, for sharpening the focus of my "complaints are free deliverables with a bonus opportunity" with your "A complainant is merely an ambassador waiting to be recruited."

Well said!!

Jim Watson
Portland, Maine

This is a great example of

This is a great example of how people are more likely to share their bad experiences with anyone and everyone. Especially with social sites becoming more popular this bad experience can reach many within seconds! It is important to listen to your customers’ complaints, and then do something about it. For information on how to improve the customer experience, visit us at

The risk of complaints


You make some great points on how to capitalize on all those complaints. There are two other things to consider around complaints. First are the risk implications related to complaints. Analyzing consumer complaint data and appropriately addressing issues noted in complaints will not only help improve the customer experience but it can also help those in regulated industries mitigate risk. There is a wealth of information that can be found in consumer complaint data, and one complaint could be the catalyst for the regulators to step in. Just ask some of the financial institutions that have been fined by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Second, is the multitude of ways customers can now interact: Phone calls, emails, social media, and other online channels, such as chat sessions and online forums. All of them represent valid channels to express complaints.

Unfortunately, many companies have traditionally tended to treat complaints as isolated cases - “one offs” to be handled as exception items. Today, businesses need to flag complaint patterns both quantitatively and qualitatively. I was reading an article on this subject and below are some great suggestions of indicators to look for:

• A spike in verbal complaints through the call center.
• Increasing online inquiries about certain products.
• Sudden changes in online or call center traffic.
• Surges in blog and social media postings or traffic referring to an activity.
• Operational changes that have “downstream” impacts.
• Issues that arise because Marketing launched a campaign without compliance involvement.

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