In praise of complaint handlers

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Listening-Dog-BlueHaving watched the documentary series ‘The Complainers’, I applaud complaint handlers or ‘the human punch bags’ dealing with the litany of venomous abuse from over 1,000 complainants on a daily basis. Call handlers now make up one in five of the British workforce and they came across as the most sane and tolerant people on the planet, as one agent said ‘it’s like playing Russian roulette here.’

Probably no great surprise to learn that over 38 million complaints were lodged against UK organisations. On a positive note, complaining is good – it keeps driving up standards, it allows customers to have a voice particularly with the growth of social media empowering us all to enjoy and savour the power to complain. It can in a nutshell, change industries. Also, a customer complaint doesn’t have to be a negative experience and how organisations respond to their customers’ problems can actually build stronger advocacy.

At the end of the day the human brain is around 100,000 years old and its needs are very basic and primitive. So whilst we are faced with new technologies, systems and processes all designed to improve things, our brain remains pretty much static in how it operates. We are still programmed to demand a human to human interaction, otherwise we feel emotionally disconnected, disloyal, frustrated and untrusting.

So do leaders truly recognise the power that their front line complaint handlers have in their hands? And how do they support them respond to each customer letter, email or call with a positive mindset and solution driven approach to drive advocacy?

CEB research, conducted in 2013, showed that how the customer feels about the interaction matters twice as much as what they actually do during the interaction. So how we connect with the customer on an emotional level is hugely important. The research concluded that customers want the experience of a company to be easy: to deal with their issues first time, to not pass them around from pillar to post, to not make them repeat information, to take ownership of issues, to not just deal with the immediate issue but to look for issues that they might not be aware of, to build some warmth and to emotionally connect with customers.

So whilst we will never get rid of the uber-complainers who simply want to cathartically lash out at someone, we can reduce valid complaints by ensuring we adopt some new human to human techniques within our front line training, the first two of which are based on the CEB research:

  1. Don’t just resolve the current complaint, head off the next one – you’ve all heard of First Time Resolution, following on its tail is Next Issue Avoidance. In dealing with complaints, NIA anticipates why customers might make contact in the future. So go beyond the FCR. The question advisors should ask themselves is ‘how can I make sure this customer does not call back?’ according to Harvard Business Review research, this approach has been shown to reduce call volumes by 20% to 30% in 12 months and improve customer retention
  2. Use the Intensity Reduction Formula – Our usual response in dealing with angry customers who are complaining is to remain calm and passive. Passive is a low energy state and anger is a high energy state. Reframe this by talking about what would happen if you approached an unhappy person whilst you were in a fun state, you would probably annoy them. The reason is that these states fall at opposite ends of the spectrum. Depression/unhappiness is a low energy state and fun is a high energy state. So the trick to taking the heat out of a negative comment made by a customer, and preventing the conversation from becoming more heated or negative, is in our ability to match the customer‘s energy but use non-confrontational language.
  3. Work in imagination not memory – complaint teams often suffer from an epidemic of expertise, often they are technical experts and this can result in them becoming so experienced that they forget to nail the basics: listening, questioning and understanding specific needs.   In our experience many complaints are escalated because they were never properly understood at the first point of contact. Front line teams need to step into the customers shoes and adapt their communication to become super personal, relevant and effective: working with imagination, not just memory. Doing the right thing for the individual customer is the result of a combination of working with what feels right in the moment and using a little bit of imagination with everything you do.
  4. Provide agents with Experience Engineering skills. Based on science from the USA, this is all about arming staff with the skills to address the emotional side of customer interactions and differs greatly from traditional soft skills training both in terms of focus and outcome. This involves actively guiding a customer through an interaction designed to anticipate the emotional response and pre-emptively offer solutions that create a mutually beneficial resolution outcome.
  5. Deploy Empathetic Listening – As individuals we hear sounds all the time, but we’re not always consciously aware of what we hear. However hearing is not listening and as we know, listening, showing genuine interest in them and empathy towards customers is a vital skill when dealing with complaints. This means listening to understand, rather than interrupting, being present in the moment, becoming interested in listening to others. Don’t waste time trying to anticipate what a customer might say or how they might respond – far better to hear them out, listen and then use a pause to formulate your next question and to demonstrate attention and reassurance.
  6. Be aware of your personal state – where does your ego go when faced with a conflict situation? How much self-awareness do you have around ‘that’s where you’re heading’ and how do you manage your personal state in order to remain in the right mindset to find a win-win scenario where your client trusts your response. Understand and believe that a complaint is an opportunity not a problem, this will drive a stronger emotionally connected conversation with a positive mindset and language that is outcome driven.
  7. Create a peak ending – Customers have a positively memorable experience based on peak moments during a conversation – where conversations reach a high and a personal connection is felt and a positive memorable ending to the customer interaction. In what has come to be known as his ‘peak-end rule’, Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman pointed out people could remember only two things during an experience process: how we feel at the peak (no matter whether the ultimate experience was good or bad) and at the end. These peak-end feelings summarise our whole experience process and are stored in our brain at a subconscious level. We remember only the peak and the end.

At the end of the day, dealing with complaints is centered on dealing with highly emotional conversations and in that point in time, how it’s handled creates loyalty. It boils down to human needs; we want to be heard, understood, and we want empathy and a solution to our complaint. If we can achieve this, we can build trusting and successful relationships, which will drive customer retention and attrition and greater employee engagement. These front line champions have a lot to be thanked for.

Briege Kearney - Director - Client Development - Blue Sky Performance Improvement Briege@bluesky

http://www.blue-sky.co.uk

 

 

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3 Responses to “In praise of complaint handlers”

  1. Carlos Fulgêncio Says:

    …yes, in the end it’s all about connecting “with the customer on an emotional level”. We are humans and when people complaint they don’t want to be listened out by someone more or less ‘anonymous’ or to receive a standardized reply. As Briege made clear what makes the difference (the so called ‘added value’) handling Customers complaints is “how the customer feels about the interaction”. I.e., putting the focus on the ‘feeling’ rather than just on the ‘technical performance’. Here lays the modern trend on Customer Services.

  2. blueskypeople Says:

    Thank you Carlos, I couldn’t agree more and it’s the role of leaders to support this by driving and encouraging a ‘permission culture’ throughout their service organisation to support advisors make decisions in the moment to resolve complaints. That is scary when for so long they have been governed by scripts and processes.

    • Carlos Fulgêncio Says:

      Indeed Briege. ‘Permission culture’ to the extent it allows Complaint handlers to engage (‘feeling’) with the Customers’ issues they’re trying (so hard…!) to solve. In other words, as you put it, powering solutions is empowering people by allowing them to “make decisions”.

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