Love the complaining customers

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Complaining customers are a pain. Worse, they're a significant expense. Imagine you're Sprint, where some consumers are tying up your customer service staffers with as many as 50 complaint calls a month - often about the same complaint. One look at the cost and revenue equation for these customers, and it's easy to see why Sprint told the worst offenders to look elsewhere for their cell service.

Then, there's American Airlines. In a category with no shortage of service snafus, AA just gave 1,000 of its frequent flyers the OK to send whiny e-mails and text messages about everything from lousy food to dirty planes. With the air industry famous for its angry customers, has American lost its mind?

Ask Jeff Jarvis. You may recall him as the lone blogger who ranted about Dell's lousy service of his new laptop. Armed with little more than the Google-friendly phrase "Dell Hell," he saw his complaint grow into a blogosphere cause celebre. While its customer response was no worse than that of most competitors, Dell saw its service reputation - and its stock price - go down the drain.

Can any one customer achieve this much destruction alone? No. Two other conditions were needed: First, he was right. Second, the company's response was clumsy. Which brings us to our moral: If a complainer damages your business, you may deserve it.

Think of our complainer as the one cockroach you see - he or she represents 10 others you don't. This is simply the one who's motivated enough to contact you. Indeed, the person who complains is doing you a favor, because he or she highlights the problems that silently cost you customers.

A customer complaint is a cry for help. Most complainers don't start with the goal of destroying your company; they simply want their problem addressed. Stated another way, they seek to improve the quality of their own experience. If you let them down, you never know which customer will become your sworn enemy. Satisfy them up front, and many will become brand ambassadors. They can give you the insights into ironing out problems for your non-complaining customers as well, ensuring a better brand experience for everyone.

You may ask, if Sprint and Dell did the wrong thing, did American do the right one? That depends. Ignoring complaints is a sure path to trouble. But inviting them only works if you're actually prepared to act on them.

The Marketing Store has set up a process for our Nissan clients to ensure that response takes place. When our Nissan call center receives a complaint about dealer service, we don't type a summary. We transcribe the customer's entire call - word for word -and e-mail it to the customer's local dealer for action the next morning. The complaint is not only handled promptly, but in person. We then call the customer afterward to confirm that the complaint has been resolved to their satisfaction.

It's far wiser to answer complaining voices than to ignore them. Will you ever pick up this paper, only to read that Sprint lost sales and profits because it stuffed a rag in its loudest customers' mouths? Maybe not. Will they still, in fact, lose? Absolutely.

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