Complaints: a precious customer experience gift

Most people just dread dealing with complaints.

Small things can make an experiencefeel great, or terrible

Each one can feel like (or indeed be) a black mark against you and your department.  Every complaint heralds tough conversations with team members and irate customers and too often managers struggle to find anything more insightful than ‘human error’ from their root cause analysis.

It is easy to see complainers as the problem, the awkward minority. After all the vast majority of customers are happy with what you do, right?

But from a Customer Experience and customer driven transformation perspective complaints are a precious gift.  It is that rare moment when a customer has made the effort to jettison reticence in favour of a no-holes-barred candid account of what the experience was really like and, importantly, how it made them feel.  Research shows that most complaints are motivated by a desire to help the organisation change and learn from its mistakes.

Rather than direct complaints into a specialist department the most successful organisations (perhaps most famously, Amazon) work hard to make the whole organisation understand complaints and use them to drive meaningful change.

How can you turn complaint management from a wasteful chore to a high value priority and how you can help teams get more value from their root cause analysis work?

Unsurprisingly these issues are linked.

Complaints in context

Complaints must be put in context if an organisation is to take them seriously.  The real cost of poor experiences must be understood; both the cost to handle complaints and the true cost of lost sales and recommendation from those who have poor service experiences, whether they complain or not.

As we know most people don’t bother to complain most of the time.  Complaints are the tip of the iceberg and give us a small, but invaluable clue to the cause, true frequency, and cost of poor experiences.

Fortunately measures like CES (customer effort score) provide a better measure of error and poor customer experiences.  Our article ‘Do your KPIs justify inaction or drive change’ uses the evidence from regression analysis to describe the link between CES and error in service experiences.

On a 1 – 10 scale where 1 is very high customer effort, regression analysis shows that any score of 7 or worse has a significant impact on future sales. Customers scoring a 6 or less are 3 times more likely to complain than those scoring a 7 or more.

An effective CES survey process allows you to estimate the frequency of these sub-optimal, 1 – 7 experiences.  Using this method companies typically find that between 20% and 30% of experiences could be improved.  The vast majority of complaints come from customers who experience these errors, or who due to the nature of their interaction or just plain bad luck, experience multiple errors.

Thinking of CES in this way gives a realistic and meaningful goal for improvement.  World class organisations look to drive 1 – 7 experiences towards 5% or less.  An effective complaints culture is then doing everything possible to reduce high customer effort, a key driver of complaints, before complaints are manifest.

'Tip of the iceberg', the typical approach to managing complaintsA complaints appraoch that attempts to elimiate all occurances of high customer effort

Turn complaints management from a thankless drudge to an inspiring leadership challenge.

Emotions cut two ways:

  • They shape how customers feel about their interactions with you
  • They also shape how your staff feel about your customers and if they will give the discretionary effort required to drive change.

As Charles Brindley points out in his article ‘The value of complaints’ organisations can  capitalise on the emotions that every complaint oozes.   With complaints the customer has had enough and jettisons the typical reserve and reticence in favour of a no-holes-barred candid account of what the experience was really like and, importantly, how it made them feel.  Most customers also have a strong desire to help the organisation change and learn from the mistake.

Raw emotions thaw all but the hardest of hearts.  When your people empathise with the plight of customers, they are galvanised to take the risks necessary to drive change.

Video take outs from research, real customer stories and call recordings all help staff connect to customers.

Getting the most out of root cause analysis

Organisations need to make sure the most is made of root cause analysis which all too often sites ‘human error’ as the underlying cause.

Some centralise root cause analysis, but this comes at a huge cost.

The people best placed to specify and implement change are the front-line staff and the managers who use a system or process.   Where change is dictated by an external department the speed and success of change almost always suffer.

Learning to think analytically about how a service is perceived by customers and how to change the behaviours, processes and systems that deliver that service is a critical skill for all managers and is at the heart of an agile working culture.

In our experience it is far better to upskill managers to do their own root cause analysis, providing specialist advice when needed and pulling together cross functional teams for problems that span multiple departments.

Independent facilitation and specialist skills can help these teams see the patterns that underlay complaints and to pinpoint the sub-optimal behaviours, policies or systems that lay at the of the heart matter.

An independent perspective can reveal that a manual keying error is not only the fault of an individual with large fingers but also a consequence of poor user interface design, inadequate training, overly complex processes, ineffective checking and cleansing algorithms or lack of systems integration.

Customer journey mapping, UX, in-depth analysis and user research are all vital tools to identify the causes of complaints. Service design techniques can then be applied to help eliminate those underlying causes.