How Richard Branson handles customer complaints

Contributor - Derek Williams

Richard Branson wearing a black shirt while sitting on the sofa holding a mug

Once in a while every business is going to receive a customer complaint. And, as customer-focused business people, we have to be ready to respond

Not every complaint goes viral, but several years ago a complaint letter running to several pages - including numerous photographs of his meal - was sent by a Virgin Atlantic passenger to Sir Richard Branson.

The letter was an absolute gem and was picked up by several newspapers. It was a very funny and carefully crafted plea to Sir Richard. It had me laughing from start to finish. So did Sir Richard Branson do the right thing, and what lessons can smaller businesses learn?

These are some of the key issues that you need to think about when you receive a complaint.

Every complaint needs to be taken seriously

Research suggests that 72% of complainers who feel their complaint has been dealt with satisfactorily are more loyal after the complaint than they were before. The power of the internet and the media is such that you can never afford to snub a complainer even if you think it is a complete hoax. Sir Richard took this complaint very seriously and dealt with it personally.



The customer's perception is everything

This might have been a carefully prepared meal - full of delicious and expensive ingredients. But the customer's perception was that it was a strange concoction of sponge pudding and peas, custard and mustard. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and needs to be respected. Research indicates that 68% of customers may switch supplier if they don't feel cared for.

Remember the world is watching

My own research shows that up to 80% of complaints come from customers that businesses might not even want to keep. But if a complaint enters the public arena, then your response is going to be a signal to every other customer that you deal with. So be very careful what you say, and think about what might happen if your message gets broadcast. Gerald Ratner was one of those to learn this lesson the hard way.

Say you're sorry

The three things that genuine complainers are looking for are:

  • an apology;
  • an explanation;
  • reassurance that this problem will not happen again - either for themselves or for another customer.

Assuming that Sir Richard apologised, then he was already the best part of the way to keeping this customer.

Building strong customer relationships is about building partnerships

The complainant has stated in his letter that he loves the Virgin brand and that he has been a customer for some time. What Richard Branson did was to offer this customer an opportunity to sit on the tasting panel the next time that they review their menu.

Now that's a very powerful thing to do. If the customer really does love Virgin, then he will probably be delighted at the opportunity to provide some real input. And, if he's really not a Virgin lover, then at least he has had an invitation to be involved from someone at the highest possible level. And what better way to give a customer reassurance than to invite them to be part of the process for future customers?

Don't delay

And finally, it appears that Sir Richard acted quickly. On the same day the story made the newspapers there was also a report that Sir Richard had made a personal phone call to the customer. If only all complaints got through to someone who had the ability to make a difference so quickly.

And herein lies the lesson. Either give your people the authority that they need to resolve a complaint, or make absolutely certain that there is a clear path to your doorway. Nothing will frustrate a customer more than being fobbed off.

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Derek Williams

Derek is creator of The WOW! Awards, as well as an international speaker and author on customer service. He is the past chief executive of the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Europe.

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