Customer complaints are an inevitable part of the overall service improvement for any business – and an incredibly valuable component in improving the customer experience if they’re handled effectively.

Complaints about the conduct of business demonstrate a clear disjoint between customers’ expectations with their experience and the service being delivered.

Most complaints are generally about:

  • the product-quality or service-delivery
  • back-office interactions with the customer
  • business processes being too internally-focused
  • the emotional journey of the customer not being met
  • a disjoint between expectation and delivery
  • tension between business policy and customer needs

Complaints are golden

Complaints are incredibly useful; they generate opportunities for change and innovation to counteract inadequate performance. From our experience, and some core best-practice, if you’re getting the issues above, you can start improving by;

  • developing products / services better-attuned to customer needs
  • improving the customer processes that lead to complaints and helping teams deal with them effectively
  • diagnosing specific pain points and high-impact moments of truth that can damage the customer relationship
  • building business cases and process strategies for overall customer experience improvements

The customer complaints handling process can be a powerful tool for businesses wanting to formulate and manage better service delivery.

What are the 5 basic rules of effective complaint handling?

We’ve outlined five top-line considerations for building a value-added customer complaints handling process (CCHP):

1. Formalise the system and combine internal process with external journey

It sounds obvious, but it’s essential to develop specific CCHP (customer complaints handling process) written procedures for your complaint-management. What’s less obvious is how to align internal process to a customer-centric journey. Building effective process mapping on one hand, while interlinking this with a planned customer journey is one of the most effective ways of avoiding a disjoint between the customer and the organisation.

It’s why we combine process mapping and customer journeys – they are not exclusive but interdependent parts of the same system.

Equally, effective monitoring and benchmarking will combine the efficiencies of the process with the effectiveness of the journey. Just because a system is streamlined, it does not make it customer-centric, and just because a journey is emotionally aligned it does not make it cost-efficient for the business.

2. Make processes understood. Make the journey intrinsic

From a process perspective and to improve understanding of CCHPs, your business needs to explicitly clarify how to:

  • access the system / initiate a complaint and contact
  • maintain communications throughout the CCHP, and
  • assure complaints are treated in a reasonable, timely manner for respectful resolution

But this is only half the story. Complaints are by their nature an emotional journey for the customer, and if a CCHP is simply a box-ticking exercise, it’s missing a vital component. When delivering the complaints process to customer-facing staff, ensure they understand:

  • the emotional context behind the reason customers complain and how to manage the situation
  • ensure that best practice is being explained in terms of the customer’s benefit
  • build key guidelines into the process that enable staff to monopolize on these moments of truth. Ensure they have leverage and flexibility to meet customer demands.

3. Resolution looks different from the outside

What does resolution of a complaint look like to your organisation? If it’s one-sided, the chances are it’s missing something. Ensure customers are satisfied with your resolution, as well as it ticking the proverbial internal box. Additionally, resolution doesn’t always relate to the end of a complaint, there are multiple touch-points throughout a complaint process and it’s important to ensure that you’re gauging resolution as an entirely successful journey throughout.

Although satisfaction surveys can be a useful indicator of overall success, they don’t look at gathering insight “in the moment”. Instead, look at ways that you can create a continual feedback loop throughout the journey and process – how can customer-facing teams keep an accurate measurement of the effectiveness of the process while it’s happening, at each point? This allows for far more effective micro-refinements.

4. Internalise the process but drive it from an emotional foundation

Added to this, provide employees who deal directly with customers with resolution training to confront complaints. Ensure that this training isn’t just process based, but also works on how to deal with the emotional needs of the customer. Again, by combining the two you’ll find the results are far better than the sum of their parts.

An often overlooked aspect of this training is communication. How messages, bad news and the organisation’s point of view are communicated will have a profound impact on how effective the complaints resolution is. “Computer says no”, “company policy says…” are sure fire ways of turning a simple query into a full blown complaint.

5. Understand the dynamics of escalation and conflict

Conflict is a fundamental part of complaint handling, and from conflict we’ll often see an escalation process. Understanding the reasons conflicts occur should form a core part of any training programme. Conflict is a highly emotional situation, and as such, no process or procedure will help alleviate it – rather look to build on empathy and context training to help customer-facing staff understand the wider dynamics behind conflict.

Our view on escalation is a subject for a longer article, as its need often reflects a business architecture which doesn’t allow enough flexibility for front-line staff to resolve an issue there and then. A high level of escalations is a symptom of a wider cause and should be considered a core driver in any internal change process.

1 thought on “Building a human-centred customer complaints process”

  1. Great article!

    Complaints are indeed golden – because they indicate an underlying passion, commitment or belief that the person holds. As such, there is enormous energy and potential contained within a complaint.

    Rather than trying to just quash a complaint, as many companies would seek to do, much can be gained by embracing it and discovering the underlying commitment. When we tap into that it provides an opportunity to fulfil that commitment or belief and, in so doing, convert the ‘complainee’ into a loyal advocate.

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