All businesses have to handle customer complaints at some point, but it makes sense to avoid them in the first place if you can. Naomi Marks finds out how to keep your customers happy
Keeping the customer satisfied is a business imperative. Not only is it unpleasant and time-consuming dealing with complaints, but finding new customers is far more costly than hanging on to those you already have.
If you annoy, disappoint or upset one customer, the message can spread surprisingly quickly via email, online reviews and social media. The effects of one complaining customer can be magnified many times.
There can be many reasons you might receive a complaint - from customers feeling they were sold the wrong product to late delivery or rude customer service staff.
Complaints obviously also vary from sector to sector. For example, in the restaurant world, customers deem rudeness particularly unacceptable, while in computer retail poor after-sales service is a common gripe. It can be worth researching the particular bugbears of customers in your sector and compiling a checklist to ensure you are not an offender.
"Regardless of the sector a business operates in, most customer complaints seem to boil down to people's failures to build good relationships," says Frea O'Brien, general manager of Customer First, which awards a national standard in customer service.
"In the recession small firms were so focused on their cash flow that some became blinkered from understanding their customers," she adds. "But customers are the lifeblood of an organisation - they are sales. You have to empathise with them."
It is important to deliver on your service commitment, whether it is the high quality of your product or the speed of your delivery.
"To minimise complaints you have to go right back to the roots of your organisation," advises O'Brien. "You can build a first pillar of defence when recruiting. Hire people on their relationship-building skills. Look for those who listen, who can take the initiative and generally have a good attitude."
She points out that it is not only customer-facing staff who need to understand the importance of good customer service. "Everyone, including those behind the scenes - such as warehouse workers and administrative staff - need to have an understanding of their role in meeting customer expectations," O'Brien emphasises. "Everyone can benefit from customer service training."
It is equally important to have a good understanding of your market if you want to avoid complaints. "To do this you need to solicit feedback," explains O'Brien. "Traditional printed customer questionnaires can work well, but time-strapped customers prefer emails, online surveys or even phone calls. Of course, it's important to value and act upon the information you receive."
You can also help prevent complaints by considering what it is like to be a customer of your organisation. "It's about knowing who your customers are and making a connection with them," says O'Brien. "Key to this is building loyalty - for example, through newsletters, promotions or anything that keeps them engaged."
Aiming for zero complaints may be unrealistic, but it is worth remembering that a complaining customer can be beneficial. Not all customers will complain, so the one that points out an area of your business that needs attention should be thanked. Deal with them courteously and swiftly, and inform them about any action taken.