How to handle customer complaints

Customer complaints are bound to happen when running a business. Handling these customer grievances effectively is crucial, not only for maintaining a good relationship with the complaining customer but also for safeguarding your business’s reputation - especially in an era where social media can amplify an individual’s voice, and this becomes even more pronounced when that voice expresses negative sentiment.

That said, the most effective approach to dealing with customer complaints starts with understanding that a complaint isn't personal nor an attack on your business.

That’s according to Palesa Mabasa, business development head: SME Funding at FNB, who emphasises that complaints can be invaluable tools for business improvement.

“A customer who takes the time to complain is offering you priceless insights into their needs and expectations, and those of many other customers,” she says, “so a well-managed complaint can be an opportunity to enhance your relationship with the customer and transform them into a loyal advocate for your brand.”

Maropeng Ngoasheng, head of customer experience at FNB Commercial agrees, and points out that customer complaints offer a window into the customer's perspective, enabling businesses to refine their offerings and improve satisfaction.

They are also an opportunity to strengthen the relationship with the customer. However, she points out that to successfully turn a complaint from a risk into an opportunity, there are certain guidelines that any business needs to follow.

How to handle customer complaints

1. Establish a comprehensive complaints-handling framework

Ngoasheng highlights the importance of ensuring that your customers have easy access to complaint resolution channels. These channels must be monitored, and complaints should receive prompt and appropriate responses.

“Ignoring a complaint poses a severe risk to the customer relationship as well as the business’s reputation,” she says, “so you need to aim to respond quickly, preferably on the same platform where the complaint was made.”

She also points to the importance of having clear escalation procedures in place. Customers should know they can escalate their issue if it isn't resolved to their satisfaction initially. Clear escalation points and processes are vital for this as are clearly defined responsibilities within the business regarding complaint handling.

“It is impractical for all complaints to go to one person, especially not the owner,” she says, “so be sure to empower your staff to resolve issues independently.”

2. Train your staff

Mabasa emphasises that all business employees, not just sales staff, should be trained in complaint resolution.

“Customers might approach anyone in your store or business with a complaint,” she explains, “so all your staff need to understand the complaint process, how to follow it, and how to escalate issues when necessary.”

She says that this staff training should include techniques for staying calm and respectful, de-escalating situations, and handling abusive customers.

“Unhappy customers are typically wanting three things: to be heard and listened to; to feel they are understood and empathised with; and to have their issue resolved promptly,” she says, “so, while it’s easy to become defensive when faced with a complaint, your staff need to understand the importance of an appropriate response – which more often than not starts with a sincere apology.”

3. Be transparent about your policies

Clearly communicate your return and exchange policies to avoid misunderstandings. A lack of transparency in these areas can lead to significant issues. Display your return policy prominently in your store, on your ecommerce site, and on receipts and ensure that these policies align with consumer protection laws.

4. Use auto-responses with care

While email auto-responses are acceptable for customer queries, they may not be suitable for initial responses to complaints as they can make customers feel that their concerns aren't taken seriously.

“If you use an auto-response, ensure it includes a commitment to a personalised follow-up within a specific timeframe,” Mabasa says, “and then make sure that you always keep that promise.”

5. Be proactive

As with so much in life, when it comes to complaints, prevention is better than cure. “Only a small percentage of unhappy customers actually voice their complaints,” Ngoasheng says, “and this poses a risk to your company since silent dissatisfaction can lead to lost business without any opportunity for rectification.”

She recommends proactively seeking feedback from your customers to uncover potential issues before they become formal complaints, and then leveraging innovation and continuous improvement to operational processes to proactively drive better customer service and an improved overall experience.

“Implement regular feedback mechanisms, such as post-transaction surveys or annual reviews, to gather customer insights,” she says.

Make the process straightforward to encourage participation and when potential issues or great ideas are identified, ensure there's a system to address and acknowledge them, reinforcing to customers that their feedback is heard and valued.”

Despite any business owner’s best efforts, things can, and do, occasionally go wrong. By adopting a positive and proactive approach to handling complaints, businesses can maximise their chances of not only retaining customers but also attracting new ones.

Originally published on Bizcommunity
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