Recovering customer loyalty when things go wrong

I’ve just come across a book called  A Complaint is a Gift: Recovering Customer Loyalty When Things Go Wrong, by Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller (published by Berrett-Koehler Books (you can find it by a Google book-search here). I was looking at pp.125 onwards in particular, ‘The eight-step gift formula’.

Now ‘a complaint is a gift’ may be overstating things somewhat, but having experienced a problem over recent weeks with one of my own suppliers, I have to say that the authors’ simple, commonsense approach to recovering and rebuilding customer loyalty set me thinking about how we handle complaints — and how my own complaint had been handled. (It made me realise, for instance, that what had made me so angry was that every single step of the process was appallingly handled. Or to put it another way, at every step where my customer loyalty could have been recovered, it wasn’t.)

The authors’ basic principle is that a complaint is a gift that helps you understand where you have gone wrong. The eight-step approach they advocate for handling complaints should be posted on sheets of art paper throughout every office, shop, bank, call centre — and social enterprise. Here’s what they recommend as an eight-step approach to putting the ‘a complaint is a gift’ approach into action (I have amended it somewhat but the gist is the same):

  • Say ‘thank you’ — a complaint is a gift that helps you understand where your organisation has gone wrong.
  • Explain that you appreciate feedback — it enables you to correct mistakes.
  • Apologise for the mistake/failure — but avoid the word ‘inconvenience’. ‘Inconvenience’ is a word the authors recommend you cease using. Inconvenience reduces the significance of the problems you may have caused your customer. Take the word off your signs and out of your letters and emails! Recognise problems (not ‘issues’, not ‘inconveniences’!!) and talk in clear, concrete language about how these problems are to be corrected and avoided in the future.
  • Promise to do something about the problem immediately. Take responsibility.
  • Ask for necessary information.
  • Correct the mistake — promptly.
  • Check customer satisfaction.
  • Prevent future mistakes.

It makes you think, doesn’t it.


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