Body_SellCustServ.jpgby Robert Lerose.


Public figures who mess up and then deny their wrongdoing never seem to learn the age-old lesson—the cover-up is usually far worse than the crime. Had they taken responsibility for their missteps at the outset and made a genuine effort to repair them, they could have bought themselves priceless goodwill and probably even come out stronger than before.


Similarly, businesses that handle complaints directly and promptly often find that customers reward them with new sales and fierce loyalty.   


That has certainly been the experience of Richard Wilbert. Before founding SiteSource Business Coaching, a Colorado-based consulting company for small businesses, he ran a firm that designed and built landscapes for high-end residential clients. On one job where his team had to install a new patio and irrigation system, a large evergreen blocked their access in the back corner of the yard. They warned the homeowners that the tree could get damaged during the new construction, but they were given the go-ahead to proceed nevertheless. Eight months later, the homeowners called to complain that the tree was failing. Perhaps not surprisingly, they also claimed that they didn't remember the warning.


PQ_SellCustServ.jpgWilbert went to the job site, assessed that the tree could not be saved, and determined that the only solution was to remove the tree and replace it—eating the cost himself. "In their minds, we were the reason the tree died," Wilbert says, even though he had expressly warned them about the danger at the beginning.


The homeowners were so overwhelmed by the way the situation was handled, though, Wilbert says they referred his landscaping company whenever they had the opportunity."They told others they should call us, that we stand behind what we do," he adds. "It became a great positive for us. Replacing the tree was an insignificant cost considering all the work we got out of it."


Own the problem

Most business experts stress the importance of having procedures in place for dealing with customer complaints. At the top of the list is replying to the customer immediately. Even if the problem can't be solved right away, customers should be contacted within the same day so they can be reassured that the issue is being investigated.


Another way to think of this is to take responsibility of the problem as soon as it surfaces.


"If [businesses] don't take ownership right away, that's a huge mistake," says Kyla O'Connell, vice president of business development for Asher Strategies, a sales training company for business-to-business salespeople in Washington, D.C. In the past 15 years, the firm has trained over 35,000 sales people in more than 1,000 companies in establishing customer service policies for increased sales and profits.  


From this experience, Asher has developed a ten-step process that teaches other businesses how to handle customer complaints, summarized here:


1. The first person to hear the problem owns it until it's resolved. "It doesn't mean they have to fix it behind the scenes, but they should be the one to get back to the customer so the customer doesn't feel that they're being bounced around," O'Connell explains.


2. Let the customer know that you appreciate hearing about the problem. This tactic alleviates the situation of any toxic emotions and can disarm angry customers.


3. Put the customer's complaints in your own words and say it back to them to show that you understand the problem. The person handling the complaint should match or mirror the customer's personality type, too. For example: A customer with an analytical personality should be handled in a similarly detail-oriented way, whereas a more openly emotional customer would respond better to an overtly compassionate manner.


4. "Ask for details and listen carefully with empathy," O'Connell says. "We want [customer service reps] to be on the same side with the client, not against them."


5. Allow the customer to fully articulate the problem without interruption.


6. Sympathize with the client by saying, for example: "I'm sorry you had to go through this. Based on what you've told me, I can see that you're very upset."


7. Get the customer actively involved in the process by asking how they would like to see the problem resolved. "They may simply want their money back, when we were prepared to give them twice that in services," O'Connell adds.


8. Give the customer a specific timeframe for when the problem will be resolved.


9. Send some kind of follow-up, either a phone call or thank you note.


10. Take positive action within your company—such as additional training or circulating an instructional memo—to minimize the chances of this type of problem occurring again.


Businesses should also hire employees with an aptitude for customer service—people with a natural inclination to empathize, make a good impression, and want to solve problems. Even small businesses with limited staff can hire one person with the phone skills, assertiveness, and temperament to excel at dealing with complaints.


"They're going to pay for themselves almost immediately," O'Connell says. "And they will free up your sales or management people from not having to worry about customer complaints."


Eavesdropping on what people say about you

Contemporary technology platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp! have given everyone the ability to post their opinions, thoughts, comments, and—most importantly for business owners—complaints to a worldwide audience with lightning speed. Customers can shame companies publicly, too. Case in point: When a passenger on United Airlines failed to get compensation after baggage handlers broker his guitar, he set the incident to music in a protest video that was seen by over 12 million people.


Before going public, that passenger had tried to resolve the situation through United's customer service department first, to little effect, However, some customers will never complain to a company directly, preferring to air their grievances to the world.


To stay on top what’s being said online, business owners can subscribe to services like Google Alerts and RSS feeds, which monitor the Web and provide regular updates whenever their product or company name pops up—giving their resolution reps the chance to reach out to disaffected customers, address their complaints, and garner big points in customer service and public relations.


Having well-established policies and procedures in place can also make the reporting and handling of complaints manageable and efficient.


Claiming more than one million members since its founding in 1995, Angie's List, the well-known service-based consumer review site, has a strict accountability process to ensure that the reviews are based in fact. They use both technology and a team of human investigators to uncover if someone is trying to game the system or give outrageously biased reviews, positive or negative.


Critically, Angie's List also allows the company being reviewed to respond to the report made about them.


"Companies need to be aware of what is being said about them," says Cheryl Reed, director of communications for Angie's List. "The beauty of online reviews is that it takes the conversations that have been going on forever and puts them in an area where you get to listen in…and if there's a problem, the ability to correct it."


Avoid customer service problems before they start

Prompt, open communication is essential for maintaining good customer relations. So is managing expectations, even if that means turning down work because you know you lack the resources, expertise, or time to execute it satisfactorily. Recommending the services of another firm whenever possible can generate more business for you, too. Customers are apt to see you as a long-term ally, not a one-shot provider.


"There's the old adage that when you have a good experience, you'll tell one person. But if you have a bad one, you'll tell ten," Reed says. "[When a complaint comes in], take a deep breath, investigate the situation, talk to your staff and follow up."