Service Leadership – Turning Complaints into Commendations

Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.

Bill Gates (born 28 October 1955) is an American business magnate, philanthropist, investor, computer programmer, and inventor.

Service Leadership 2014-11-11


Managing a business is a bit like religion. Success can make a prayerful person forget to touch base with his God for guidance, but adversity reminds him that he needs intercession and direction to navigate back to success. I often say that when I am veering from the right path, I do not listen to gentle nudges; consequently, God has to smack me with a baseball bat to get my attention.

A complaint from an unhappy client can be the gentle nudge that keeps you on track. Ignore complaints and eventually your business will have a baseball bat moment.

I tend to put my heart into my clients and allow emotion to drive me. When I began practicing law almost two decades ago, I took every complaint personally and reacted with wailing and gnashing of teeth and the sure knowledge that I had failed with a capitol “F.”

Thanks to an employee who was honest enough to tell me that this behavior from their fearless leader caused general panic in the workplace, I reexamined my reactions, learn to objectively evaluate complaints, and determine the appropriate way to address the client’s needs.

Using the gentle nudge from a client complaint as a navigational tool, I stepped away from my knee-jerk emotional reaction and implemented steps to shift adversity into advantage and ultimately avoid a baseball bat moment.

1. Stop and breathe.

That immediate moment after a client expresses upset and dissatisfaction is not the moment in which to react, especially if you are emotion-driven in the face of a perceived failure. Space and time in which to react to what may seem like a personal attack is important and allows for step two to occur.

2. Evaluate.

I practice primarily in the area of divorce law. The majority of client complaints are not due to an error made by my office, but are the result of the emotions and frustrations endemic when going through a divorce. Clients often feel a lack of control over the courts, the system, and ultimately, their own lives. This can result in fear and a need to lash out. As such, the agitated complaint feels like a direct attack. It is important for the receiver of the complaint to be able to look at it objectively and to ask the following questions:

  • What is the basis of the complaint?
  • If the complaint is emotion-driven, what need is the client expressing?
  • If the complaint is based upon an error, from where did the error originate?
  • In what identifiable way did the error impact the client?

3. Make it right.

Objectively evaluating the complaint by answering the preceding questions will guide you to the solution best suited for not only the complaint, but also the client. For example, an emotion-driven complaint may be the client expressing fear and the need for a reassuring face-to-face meeting. An error-based complaint will frequently have a more concrete solution to make the client whole. Ultimately, the client should feel that the complaint was heard and addressed in an atmosphere of genuine concern.

4. Pay attention to the gentle nudges – improve your processes.

This is the key step that turns a complaint into a success story. A complaint is an invaluable guide to strengthening your business. Ignore a complaint, and a small crack becomes a chasm. An appropriately evaluated client complaint may uncover a hidden flaw in a system that on the surface appears to be functional. Finding this flaw from the initial complaint – listening to that gentle nudge – stops the growth of the problem and ultimately avoids the need for a baseball bat moment.

Every single client complaint is an opportunity to evaluate the strengths in your business and identify the weaknesses. If your method for handling complaints is consistent and effective, the ultimate result will be a strong business model and client.

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Katherine E. Blackmon

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