How to deal with complaints about a person
Customer issues generally fall under either Situational (issue with a product or service) or Personal (issue with a person).
In this article, we will deal with the latter, if the complaint seems to be directed at a person. Look out for the next article in the series: “Dealing with complaints about a product or service”
The first thing to try to ascertain is whether it is a person they are actually complaining about.
Establish a case
When you are dealing with difficult customers you need to decide initially whether there is a case for their annoyance. If there is, then the fault lies with your organisation and you need to speak with senior management about improving your quality and systems. If it really is the customer who is difficult, consider first how much their business is worth to you, and whether, rather than pushing them away, you should really be involving them more.
There is never a need to tolerate abuse. Most companies will have policies regarding this but, if after warning the customer that you will not tolerate that type of behaviour, they continue you should terminate any conversation or phone call. Abuse is not an effective form of communication and therefore will never lead to a satisfactory resolution.
It may be that the customer is complaining about a sales assistant, someone on the telephone, the person who is handling their complaint, or possibly even yourself. They may have seen the person, perhaps in the case of a shop or a sales assistant, or they may never have met them and dealt only with them by mail, phone or e-mail.
What may initially appear to be a complaint about a person may actually be a veiled complaint about the system. The customer may just not like what they have heard (the message) and decide to address this with an assault on the messenger.
In a situation where there is a complaint about a person, it is important then, to separate:
the message given
the way in which it was delivered
the person who delivered the message
The message given
This could be that your organisation’s procedures do not marry up with the expectations of the customer. For example, you may have a policy that any complaint that is received outside of the warranty period is not to be dealt with. If this is the case, a complaint against a customer telephone officer may be an underlying annoyance about your policy rather than the person themselves.
The way in which it was delivered
All staff dealing with customer complaints should undergo some form of customer care training. There are different ways of conveying a message and the tone and phrase in which a message is given can have a great effect on how it is received. Whereas it is not always essential for an organisation to maintain a full customer care team, it might be worth all staff attending customer care training to ensure they deliver a consistent message and deal with all complaints in the same manner.
The person who delivered the message
There may be occasions when the complaint does come down to the individual. If you find this to be the problem, you will need to speak with the individual and decide the next course of action. In the short term, and to help the customer, it would be pertinent to appoint another person to deal with the original complaint, or deal with it yourself. In the longer term you have a performance issue that you now need to address with the staff member, and this may mean you liaising with another manager if they are not in your department or team.
When following up a customer difficulty about a person, if they are found to be at fault, it becomes a management issue as to how it should be addressed. There are a number of supportive measures, such as training, mentoring, work shadowing, or there is the option to distance them from customer contact. In extreme circumstances, and with the weight of other evidence, this may even result in them having to leave the organisation.
Are there things you can put right?
When it comes to dealing with difficult customers, you need to be very sure of your mandate. What exactly can you offer customers and what is out of bounds?
Initially there are a number of things you may be able to do such as write to a complainant or speak to them, offering them your name as a management level contact and offering reassurance. Do not think that these things matter less than remuneration, they are equally as important. From there on you will need to undertake either an investigation or package of remuneration in accordance with your company policy.
In some organisations, and many parts of local government, monetary awards to external customers are certainly discouraged. In the retail sector vouchers are often given, ensuring that the customer has to come back to spend them, and hopefully has a better experience next time. It is certainly worth finding out what the difficult customer thinks is sufficient recompense.
If they are making themselves difficult because they want a monetary payout and that is not your policy, it is worth stating that upfront, as that may well end the situation.
What are your grounds for negotiation?
So, you have established that your customer has some grounds for complaint but you have not agreed to the extent of the problem or any further action.
At the moment the customer is angry. How can you turn this situation around?
You could move immediately to settlement of the issue, but then you lose a big opportunity to win back the trust and future business.
In this situation you are in a position to negotiate, and the negotiation is again not just about the terms of settlement but about engaging the customer and hopefully winning them over for the future.
In any situation, there are four possible outcomes from a negotiation:
This is where you win on the negotiation but at the expense of the other person. For example, ‘No we will not offer you anything and suggest you shop elsewhere in the future.’
This is where you lose but the customer wins. For example, ‘I am sorry that the spillage spoilt your clothes. We will pay for the dry cleaning bill and also offer you a year’s free dining at any of our restaurants.’
In this outcome you are both losers. For example, ‘I will replace everything at my own personal cost and I fully understand that you don’t want to shop here again.’
This is the ideal outcome, where you both get something out of the negotiation, for example, ‘We will replace the product, including postage, and send you a voucher for 10 per cent discount on your next purchase. We are sorry that this mistake has happened and hope that you will remain a good customer.’
In the win-win situation, you will see that the customer achieved their result – a speedy resolution – and also came away with a voucher, which has cost you very little in actual money as the discount will come off the mark-up.
The customer feels they have something extra and the voucher means that they are more inclined to come back in the future if only to browse what to possibly spend it on.