I don’t care how good you and those you work with are, client complaints can occur. Your agency needs to be equipped to handle them quickly and correctly, or you risk losing the client — not to mention creating a lot of negative comments on social media, which is one big word-of-mouth machine.
First, let me say this: I believe that you should be doing everything you can to encourage your clients to complain. You might think I’m nuts, but think about it. Some clients will complain to you about anything and everything. Most clients will not complain about the little stuff. They prefer to let things slide. The problem with this is that it usually leads to resentment toward you.
A client with an unexpressed complaint is not going to give you referrals, and they're probably a candidate to move their business somewhere else sooner or later. You have to create a business environment that fosters your clients' candid communication.
If there is a gap between how your clients would like you to be serving them and how you are actually serving them, they are a candidate to move their business. The only way to fill that gap is by asking your clients. Check in with them by saying something like, “Let’s put the market aside for a minute and talk about something we can control — like our communication. Is there anything not working for you in this area?” Most of the time you will hear good things. Every now and then you’ll uncover a complaint that needs to be expressed. Having this conversation can be the difference between keeping and losing a client.
After you look for the complaint, you can also say something like, “Let’s look at the other side. How have we been able to earn your loyalty in the midst of these turbulent times?” Now your client will get in touch with the value of working with you.
How to receive complaints
I believe that how you receive a complaint from a client goes a long way in determining how satisfied the client will be in your resolution of the problem.
When a client is registering a complaint with you, the first few actions you take can make all the difference for them and for you. Start off on the wrong foot and it gets worse. Start off on the right foot and it usually gets much easier.
Here are ten ways you can receive complaints in a way that is satisfying for your client.
1. Say, "I'm sorry." (Be genuine!) Saying "I'm sorry" is not admitting fault. You're sorry they are upset, you're sorry they are frustrated, you're sorry they are not happy with something you or someone in your company did. Saying "I'm sorry" is an expression of empathy that begins to diffuse any negativity they may be holding.
2. Honor their perspective (whatever it is). Their perspective on the situation may be way off base. That doesn't matter, at first. First, you have to treat their position with honor. As you learn more about it, and they feel heard, you can begin to work on changing their perspective (if appropriate.)
3. Don't get defensive. I think there is a natural tendency for most people to want to protect themselves when someone complains. Resist this at all costs. Demonstrate you are there for them with statements such as "Tell me more."
4. Don't make excuses or argue. First, you never win an argument with a client. Even if you win the battle, you'll probably lose the war (the client will walk). After you have completely heard the client's position and after you have a solution that pleases the client, you may tell them some of the reasons that contributed to the problem, but doing this too soon in the process will appear as if you are making excuses and not taking responsibility.
5. Fully understand the problem. To demonstrate that you fully understand their complaint, repeat back to them what you think you heard.
6. Tell them what you're going to do next and when you'll be done, if appropriate to the situation. Some complaints don’t require resolution; your client just needs to be heard.
7. Tell them when you'll call them back. Make and honor a commitment. If you can't honor the commitment, call them and let them know you're still working on it.
8. Thank them for bringing the issue to your attention. Especially for the little stuff, you want to thank your clients for not holding back. You want to let them know that you desire communication that is as candid as possible.
9. Resolve the issue as quickly as possible. The quicker the resolution, the less it will affect the overall relationship.
10. Follow through and follow up. Do this until the problem has been resolved and all residual emotions have been cleaned up.
Please share this article with everyone on your team. A relationship (any relationship) that's had a problem and that's been handled well is a stronger relationship than one that's never had a problem. Get good at encouraging candid communication from your clients so you can stop a small problem from becoming a bigger one. And when clients do complain, learn to be comfortable in the complaint. Your clients can tell the difference.
For more from Bill Cates, see: