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Fear-Free Claim Handling is a Customer-First Marketing Tactic

August 5, 2013

Never Fear a Complaint

One very practical technique a company can use to build a stronger customer culture is to start with your handling of complaints. In most businesses complaints are used in a negative manner. Someone must have made a mistake, someone needs to be accountable or blamed. customer-first org modelSomeone needs to apologize, etc. Not an uncommon approach to handling mistakes where fear is part of the management toolbox.

But complaints are not something to be feared - without them, how would you know something needed to be fixed? A article in Inc.com shared five rules for helping your employees not only manage through complaints, but in the process help you develop a more confident and forward-looking customer-first culture (see the full article interviewing Andy Cohen of Rock Properties here):

1.  "If you take it, you own it. - Don't pass the buck. Make sure it gets fully resolved." or something I call the "First Responder". Nothing leaves a more negative perception than having the first person who answers the phone be incapable of handling the complaint. It's the empowerment of the front-line employees that make your business "customer-first"!

2. "Act quickly. - Here is your chance for the company to shine. Look at the complaint as a gift, a moment to show off the brand". Be quick to respond for the sake of being quick is not what this is about - it is a way to show your company is prepared to do the right thing for the customer - EVERY time.

3. "Validate. - Let customers know that you empathize with what they are going through." Empathy counts...and it also should drive your hiring process. I was once asked why I had so many middle-aged housewives working in my phone center. Because they have the same customer experiences as the people calling on the phone. A room full of 19 yr old kids living with their parents don't have the same purchase decisions in their life as a homeowner trying to raise a family.

4. "Say you're sorry. - Don't be afraid to say, ' I'm sorry. This is not how we like to do business'." You need to avoid giving the perception that "Sorry" is enough. And PLEASE do NOT script your "sorry" statements (or almost anything else if you can help it - see #3! and this disturbing trend.). A sincere apology, however brief, represents your Brand well, reduces the potential tension of the call and sets you up for your next sale to the customer.

5. "Don't try to minimize the issue. - That feels patronizing, which just pours gasoline on the embers". No better way to explain it! Whatever the issue is, it was big enough for the customer to take the time to call. Yes, there are people in this world with too much time on their hands...but 99% of your customers are not one of them!

Embrace the Complainer

The point to take away in terms of your business culture, is to "embrace the complainer". Think about it...look at the numbers below and identify the number you should fear the most:

A Sample Month of Data:


Mthly Avg

Monthly Transactions


Active Customers


Return Rate




 Annual Customer Decay Rate


What this sample data set points to is this: Each month you might have up to 1200 orders returned (actually, a low number for some retailers), lose about 2-300 of your active customers for a variety of reasons (not all bad, some just "outgrow" you...), yet you only get 250 complaints to deal with!!! Do you see where the fear should be? The fear is in NOT KNOWING what the other 1000 people are thinking every month!

So the point is, every complaint should be greeted with a sigh of relief and big "Thank You for letting us know, we really appreciate that you pointed that out for us"! Because when no one complains while you lose 2500 customers per year...you end up as one of those smug Brands that disappears off the face of the earth without ever knowing why...

So embrace the complaints - they are your first tip when something is not right, a core part of your research and representative of the customers who really care. Because the ones who don't care don't complain - they just go away...


"Strive For Perfection, Settle For Excellence"

I once had the privilege to spend two full weeks with the folks at L.L. Bean learning how they serve their customers as part of preparing for the launch of their Japan operations. To this day, I still carry a key-chain I received that they were handing out at the time with the above slogan on it...this still resonates with me for its ambition and its sense of being a practical middle ground for where to draw the line.

From companies like this, we can learn a lot about handling complaints. If you want to make a complaint something to be welcomed into your business, it helps if you can do the following:

  1. Have a Guarantee - Companies like Zappos, Lands' End, LL Bean andWhat's Your Guarantee? others make it easy for the first person to answer the phone to be empowered to take care of the problem - everything is guaranteed! What's yours? If you don't have one, you should. Guarantees are also a great driver of innovation and accuracy...because too many returns is a metric that stands out when you wonder if you are doing your best for the customer!
  2. Value the Complainers -a culture that understands the those who complain do so because they CARE can move more quickly off the tired approach that looks for blame and responsibility instead of looking for solutions and prevention. If possible, make those who call feel rewarded for doing so.
  3. Share the Stories - one of my favorite parts of working with both LL Bean and Lands' End were all the stories shared about service going "above and beyond" and that demonstrated the strength of the culture. While they can be a great morale booster and an internal crowd pleaser, they are far more weighty in the way they help build the confidence of every employee that they can handle customers - and do it well.

Have a complaint about any of this? Let me know! I appreciate any concerns about things I left out or specifics I might have added to help you on your way...