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Recent events around the world and in our own country demonstrate that few political parties and companies actually understand how to handle complaints correctly.

This results in their missing an opportunity to demonstrate just how much they care and instead causing the loss of previously loyal party members or customers.

Just over 20 years ago, when I left full time employment to start my own business, a good friend who was a seasoned CEO of a large company gave me some very wise advice, which I’ve never forgotten.

He said to me, “When a customer of yours complains about something, understand that they are going to tell you what’s wrong with your business. If you wanted to hire a consultant to tell you what’s wrong with your business, you would have to pay them a lot of money to do so. When a customer of yours tells you what’s wrong with your business, he’s doing it for free, so listen very carefully and do what you have to do to fix the problem.

Few businesses understand this principle – that a customer’s complaint is a free consultation showing you what’s wrong with your business. If you’re smart enough to recognise that your customers can double up as free consultants, you could improve your business at no extra cost. Of course, the important thing is that you don’t treat the symptom just to keep the customer happy but leave the essential problem untouched, resulting in further similar complaints.

No-one likes to receive complaints because they’re typically not flattering or encouraging – they’re telling you something negative about the way you do things. But if you don’t find out what’s wrong, you’ll never give yourself the opportunity to improve what you’re doing.

If you want to get maximum value from a free consultation (a complaint) and, more importantly turn an unhappy customer into a loyal customer who spends even more money with you, here are four simple tips to apply when next you get that complaint:

1 Listen to your customer’s story.

Sometimes they may tell you a long story, only because it’s important to them. If it’s important to them, it should be important to you, so listen! Listening isn’t thinking of what you’re going to say back to them while they’re talking. Listening is letting them speak and hearing everything they say before thinking of replying. Sometimes, if you listen effectively, you will already have half won the customer around simply because they will have felt heard. If you don’t listen carefully, you won’t establish exactly what has caused their unhappiness. You will be going on assumptions. And we all know what happens when you assume something …

2 Tell them how you’re going to solve their problem

The reason a customer complains is because they want you to do something about their problem. So, if you don’t do anything, you’re creating a secondary problem. Now, not only are they unhappy because of the original complaint, they’re also unhappy because you failed to address their original problem. When you give them a solution for their complaint, you are reassuring them that you consider them to be important and that you want them to be happy that they spent their hard earned money with you.

3 Take action promptly

It’s one thing to tell your customer what you’re going to do but it’s another thing to actually do it, and do it promptly. Talk is cheap. Actions are what will earn you points. When you take action, you’re telling them in a very real way that you have taken them seriously. Don’t delay, though, otherwise nothing you do, even it’s the right thing, will help because it becomes a case of too little, too late.  

4 Follow up with the customer after the complaint has been resolved

You may take action but, unless you actually contact the customer to tell them what you have done, they may never know about it and keep thinking that you’re useless. The follow up is more to find out if the customer is finally happy with the outcome of the actions that have been taken. I guarantee you that a happy outcome for your customer will result in their telling a whole bunch of people about the happy outcome – just what you want.

These four steps give you a quick glimpse as to how best to handle a complaint, but if you simply address each complaint without re-examining and adjusting your policies and procedures accordingly, then ensuring everyone knows about those changes, you are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over again.

If you handle a complaint sensitively and effectively, chances are you will have an even happier and even more loyal customer than you had in the first place!

Alan Hosking is the publisher of HR Future magazine,, @HRFuturemag, and assists executives to prevent, reverse and delay ageing, and achieve self-mastery.

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