Client complaints – what do they really mean?

Angry CustomerMost relationships have their ups and down, including those between a firm and its clients. If a client complains about something the usual reaction is one of hurt or even anger, but the most appropriate reaction could well be to say ‘thanks’.

If a client complains it means that they’re concerned about the relationship because they want it to continue. Their loyalty is expressed in their complaint and they’re looking to you to fix the problem. But they’re giving you an opportunity that may only come once.

Of course if you don’t respond in a satisfactory way they are likely to express their feelings to someone else and it could cost you business you wouldn’t expect to lose.
You can never assume that one client’s dissatisfaction will stay just between you and them.

Research into the process of complaints resolution show that a properly-handled complaint can actually increase client loyalty and strengthen the relationship with the firm they’ve complained about. The same research also shows that a badly-handled complaint is the quickest way to end a business relationship.

You need to be as ready to handle complaints as you are to accept praise or payment for a job well done. Take a couple of minutes to examine your own client relationship structure and see if these common faults are built into the system:

Putting up barriers to complaints – It should be easy for your clients to make a complaint. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they’ll never make one; anticipate complaints and set up an effective system for receiving and resolving them. Be proactive and ask clients whether they have any complaints about your firm and they’ll see the value you place on keeping them satisfied.

Being blind to a client’s complaint – Never make the mistake of shrugging off a complaint because you don’t want to see it for what it is. If your client says something like: “It’s not really a serious problem, but…” you’d better not assume it isn’t really a serious problem. Hear them out and get the details, then correct whatever it is they’re telling you about.

Failing to see it from the client’s side – Ask questions to find out why the client is upset and don’t assume you have all the answers. Listen to them and work to gain a real understanding of their side of things. And don’t make the mistake of suddenly going into reverse. A client won’t be impressed by a professional services firm that doesn’t have reasons for what it’s done, even if it’s upset them.

Failing to deliver that ‘extra’ bit of service – If you’re dedicated to exceptional performance your clients will recognize it. They’ll stay with you because they know they can’t get the same service elsewhere. This provides insurance against complaints that makes it much easier to handle disputes because the clients themselves want to resolve them.

Not giving the solution enough consideration – It might be easy to ‘fix’ things simply by issuing a credit to an invoice, but has that really solved the problem? Chances are it’s actually made things worse. Set out to correct the flaw in the system that caused the problem rather than just papering over it.

Not fixing the problem – If you identify a problem but fail to correct it you’re just asking for a repeat of the complaint, perhaps from other clients. Make it a priority to rectify whatever it is that’s caused the complaint so it doesn’t create more problems for you. You don’t know who else might have been upset but just hasn’t complained – yet.

A complaint should usually receive a first response of “thanks for telling me – I’ll get onto it right away”. Telling a client you’ll ‘look into it’ is woefully inadequate. You’re getting free advice about something you’re doing that could be damaging the financial position of your firm and regardless of whether you consider the client right or wrong it’s something you needed to know.

A complaint really means that you have a chance to retain a client, so treat it as an opportunity – not a problem, and make the most of it.