Make complaining customers your greatest allies


As the number of people travelling returns closer to normal, customer complaints are also on the rise. But a dissatisfied customer can be a catalyst for businesses to make far-reaching improvements.

The latest UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) from the Institute of Customer Services, published in January 2023, showed evidence that the trend for improved complaint handling, alongside more customers experiencing a problem with an organisation, has continued. The biggest areas requiring improvement are the speed with which complaints are resolved, the manner in which a complaint is handled, and the attitude of staff. 

I recently attended a webinar at the CCA where we learned that as result of failing to get things right first time, the cost of handling complaints in the UK has risen to a record £9.24 billion a month across all sectors in term of worker hours – a truly shocking figure.

And yet complaints are an essential part of the relationship customers have with businesses. The old adage that constructive criticism is a good thing applies here. No one is perfect, and organisations should see all feedback as a chance to learn, reflect and improve. This includes the negative –especially the negative. If a customer is pointing out that an organisation is coming up short somewhere, they have in effect provided a valuable service in identifying an area for improvement, a chance for growth. 

And customers know that companies are not perfect as well. But by listening to them, demonstrating that they take the customer’s viewpoint seriously and are dedicated to not only hearing them but acting on what they say, brands can turn a dissatisfied and disenfranchised person into one who feels valued and that they are a collaborator in the organisation’s success.

Here are my top five tips for turning a customer complaint from something you dread to something to embrace.

1. Handling complaints more efficiently
It can take a rather long time for agents to fully log complaints. This includes actually speaking to the customer, in addition to after-call work: the process of summarising the call after it is over. Performed manually by an individual, each of these stages is prone to human mistakes or for the situation to get worse, rather than abate. 

Some call centres tackle this by using conversational AI and automation. The travel sector in particular can minimise the risks of human error while also speeding up the whole process. By putting conversational automation into play during live interactions, organisations can pick out the key messages the customer is delivering and then ease the agent onto the next step.

2. Escalating high-risk or sensitive complaints
Along with addressing day-to-day complaints in the most efficient way possible, there are some cases that need to be escalated and it’s essential to have a process in place. Does the company have the means to escalate in real time, or at an appropriate scheduled time? And how can they be sure they’re keeping the customer (who may be in a highly agitated state) informed of what is going on? 

Again, conversational AI could be the answer. It analyses conversations in real-time, escalating a complaint the moment it has been automatically tagged it as high-risk. This can remove the response lag that often comes with human deliberation (remember, the customer is not likely to be feeling very patient) and can lead to a smoother and less taxing experience for the distressed person on the other end.

3. Use data intelligently
Real-time insights can have a huge impact – but only if companies act on them quickly and intelligently. As well as investing in systems that directly improve customer experience (CX), travel companies must harness data and insights and learn how to use that data in ways that improve their business practices. 

4. Acknowledge what’s important to them
Customers have value dimensions – things that are important to them. Any of these being challenged, or not met, or simply ignored is what inspires them to feel dissatisfied and complain (or simply stew in their unhappiness and decide to move to a competitor). The organisation in question may not agree that the complaint is unfair or share the particular value dimension; this is irrelevant. 

Is the customer always right? Certainly, they are always exactly who they are and what they want – and this is something any customer-facing entity has to respect. They are coming to you for something, and their unhappiness is a symptom of your failure to deliver it. So, listen to them and embrace their values.

The issue of right and wrong in an objective sense is irrelevant. What the customer really wants is to feel right – to have their value dimension acknowledged, respected and met. 

5. Don’t forget the human touch
The issue of technology versus humans is a prevalent and thorny one across all sectors. Travel is no different, and the answer is to have the right elements in place and to use them at the appropriate times: human, tech, or a combination thereof. 

Companies therefore need to think strategically about the technology they employ, and then how and when they use it to improve CX. Similarly, they must employ, train and nurture the best staff possible. This isn’t about technology replacing human beings, but about using technology to support work colleagues with the tools and knowledge to add real value into customer service. 

Failing to harness the power of complaints could be fatal

Research shows that 13% of dissatisfied customers will share their negative experiences with 15 or more people. This, of course, then has a ripple effect, and negative feedback can quickly spread via social media, with the resultant impact on a brand’s reputation.

The same research reveals that only 4% of unhappy customers complain directly to the company. That leaves a staggering 96% who will silently walk away, straight into the arms of a competitor. So it would be misguided to ignore them, as by addressing their feedback and resolving their issues quickly it’s likely that there are many more customers out there who you will also be making happy. 

By shifting your mindset and treating complaints as opportunities for improvement – supported by the right technology – you can avoid future complaints and mould unhappy people into loyal customers who rebook time and time again. Clearly, a customer complaint highlights a problem, whether that’s a problem with your product, employees or internal processes, and by hearing these problems directly from your customers, you can investigate and improve to prevent further complaints in the future.

Wouldn’t you prefer to harness the potential learnings from this vocal dissatisfied minority – or better still, encourage more feedback, increasing the number who feel empowered to give out their views, thus maximising your potential to grow and improve?


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