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How to Prevent Complaints

Quality customer support equals more sales. Period. Because eight in ten consumers will defect to another company after experiencing one instance of poor customer service.

How to Prevent Complaints

Don’t try to tell the customer what he wants. If you want to be smart, be smart in the shower. Then get out, go to work and serve the customer!

Gene Buckley

Of course, we don’t expect a statistic like that to surprise you. We’ve seen and experienced this migration of customers too often to deny it. The real challenge is responding to it.

How do you measure your own customer support? How can you know in advance that you’re getting it right? How do you create a barometer for your own company’s success?

The place to start is complaints. Make it your goal to reduce the number of complaints received, and you’ll experience less customer churn with higher satisfaction ratings. In this chapter we’ll share three steps for doing just that.

Give Them What They Want

“Perception is reality.” Simple as it may be, this phrase is repeated like a mantra in business schools. Why? Because it’s too easy for businesses to forget that our intentions, our opinions, and our objectives don’t matter. All that matters is the perception that customers walk away with.

Ultimately, the only way we can convince our customers that we care about them is to give them what they want. So the question remains: What do they want? When it comes to customer support, they want quicker solutions, fewer reasons to need support, and remarkable solutions when they do reach out for support. Here are some tips for making sure your customers get all three.

Offer Self-Service Solutions

Technology and AI have radically changed our expectations about how and where we get support. Not only are consumers comfortable with the idea of finding their own solutions, but six out of ten consumers also prefer self-service as their first attempt to resolve a problem.

In most cases, the choice is driven by a need to save time or money. Interacting with a person can take more time than we have; done-for-you services can be too expensive. So before reaching out to a support agent or hiring an expert, your customers will likely look for answers among the resources on your website.

Ideally, of course, you’ve already provided some self-service options for them: FAQs or a knowledge base, a mobile app, or training videos on YouTube. That way, they can continue turning to you (not your competitors) when they need help.

But there’s an interesting dichotomy in the way these resources are seen. Too often, brands treat them as extensions of or additions to our customer service channels. Customers take a different view. For them, these resources are part of the product they’ve purchased. Customers don’t consider an interaction as “customer service” until they have to engage with a live person.

Now, keep in mind, most complaints arise when customers' expectations of the product haven’t been met. If they see a knowledge base as part of the product, and if it provides solutions to the problems they might have with your product, you’ll create the happier customer with nothing more than written instructions in your knowledge base.

That being the case, your first step in preventing complaints is to improve your self-service solutions. By giving customers a simple way to help themselves, you’ll reduce the strain on your customer support team and provide customers the speedy solutions they’re looking for.

By the way, this isn’t an option. As one VP of service reports:

Today’s customers are unbelievably impatient. As soon as we ask how we can help them, they jump down our throats. They’re frustrated because of the amount of time they’ve had to invest on their own, frustrated by the amount of conflicting information they find on the internet, and frustrated by the thought of having to deal with a service rep. They’re not calling us because they want to; they’re calling us because they have no other choice.

Matthew Dixon, Lara Ponomareff, Scott Turner, and Rick DeLisi, Harvard Business Review: Kick-Ass Customer Service

Provide Faster One-on-One Service

Self-service options are just the beginning, though. Forty-five percent of customers won’t be able to find the help they need in self-service channels. And if they’re struggling with complicated issues, they typically want more personalized help. They typically want to reach out by phone for payment disputes or complaints, for example. For other types of issues, they tend to prefer non-voice channels such as online chat, email, or social media.

Once a customer has decided to reach out for live support, speed matters. But “speed” doesn’t only refer to the time they spend waiting in a queue. Customers want to get support quickly, yes, but they also want a resolution to their problem in their first interaction.

While these may appear to be two separate needs, from a customer perspective they’re two sides to the same coin. They want a fast, hassle-free solution. Which means that to reduce complaints, we need to address speed from both sides.

Shorter Wait Times

Offering multiple support channels can help customers get the right help at the right time. But it creates challenges too.

First, research has shown that more options often create indecision in consumers. Afraid they’ll make the wrong choice, they choose nothing at all. When it comes to customer support, visitors may worry about which channel is best for their particular need. This can lead to confusion, irritation, and even “channel switching” — reaching out through multiple channels at once.

For instance, The Northridge Group found that customers will switch channels if their issue isn’t resolved within an hour. Millennials, whose expectations are higher, often switch channels if they don’t get support within a few minutes.

You can improve your customers' experience by giving some guidance in advance. If specific channels are best for getting help with specific types of problems, let your customers know. Perhaps social media is best for simple questions while chat is best for how-to situations. Perhaps live chat is best during work hours, but email is best in off-hours. Let your customers know in advance, and they’ll feel more confident that their choice will save them time on the front end.

First-Interaction Solutions

Once customers have connected with an agent, regardless of the channel, they expect a solution to be reached in that same conversation. The problem is, they’ve likely already explored your self-service options — which means they’re coming to your agents with more challenging issues. To give them the support they need, your agents must be well trained and knowledgeable.

Your agents need to be well-trained to answer even the most difficult queries. For ongoing training, set up small-group call listening sessions where agents can evaluate their performance, share tips, and coach one another.

Your agents also need to have accurate, up-to-date information. When major marketing campaigns or business changes are in the works, don’t forget to tell your support team. The more information your support team has, the more helpful they can be.

Then listen to your customers. Do your best to identify the deep need they’re calling about and to deliver a quick win, even if it could take longer to provide the full solution.

Make a Personal Connection

When customers reach out for support, they’re looking for a “wow” factor, something that makes the experience unforgettable. This isn’t something they could describe in detail. They only know when they receive it.

The American Express Global Customer Service Barometer revealed that nearly half of consumers simply want personalized service. But what does that mean exactly? In most cases, it’s about meeting a variety of expectations — including timely, personalized assistance; accurate answers; and an outlet for their comments and suggestions.

Yet we believe it goes deeper than that. To create a “wow” experience, you must connect on a personal level. That involves the three elements we’re focusing on in this book: a human-to-human interaction, experiencing true empathy, and clear communication that involves being heard and receiving effective answers.

Nail these three elements, and you’ll see fewer complaints. But you won’t see fewer support tickets. For that, you need to take a preventive approach to customer support.

Think Preventively

We tend to focus on efficient, effective customer support as the ideal. But there’s another level of support that’s even more valuable, and that’s to solve problems before your customers are aware of them. For that, you need to identify the problems with your product or service that cause complaints and make product improvements to resolve them.

This elevates customer service to another level. Instead of being a service designed to keep your customers happy, customer support becomes a branch of your research and development team. With this mindset, you prevent a complaint by removing the trigger for it. Here’s how.

Identify Recurring Issues

When you find yourself responding to the same issue or answering the same question over and over, you’re likely dealing with a deeper problem within your product or the messaging around it.

Maybe you need to add a step to your user’s manual. Maybe you need to add another question to your FAQs. Or maybe your customers have uncovered a glitch in your product that needs fixing. Your customer support team is key to identifying the issue and “debugging” it, figuring out where the problem originates and how it might be fixed.

Once you’ve identified a recurring issue and its cause, you need to be able to report the issue to the team or team member with authority to fix it. That’s why it’s best not to outsource customer support. Only when your support team works with your development and communications teams can you get a workflow started that will resolve complaint-triggering issues.

Create Self-Service Support or Product Improvements

Sometimes a frequently occurring issue isn’t something that can be fixed quickly — if at all. In that case, it should be added to your knowledge base. Write a short article explaining the issue and how it can be addressed. Include a video or screenshots to illustrate your solution. Then, knowing your customers will likely run into this problem, make your solution easy to find.

Systematize Success

Success is rarely accidental (no matter how many overnight success stories you hear!). If you want to reduce complaints, you must plan for the opposite. Create a system that proactively delivers delight.

This is a two-step process. First, plan how you can deliver delight, then adopt a minimum viable communications process.

Provide Remarkable Solutions

Before you can deliver delight, you need to know what a delightful experience looks like. What does it mean to delight your customers? What types of service or support would help you stand head and shoulders above your competition?

Joel Spolsky, a founder of software company Fog Creek, tells how Lands' End turned him from an ordinary customer into a raving fan. Spolsky was preparing for a trade show and needed some shirts embroidered with the same logo he had previously used on knapsacks. Since Lands' End had done the knapsacks, it was a no-brainer to call on them for the shirts.

But when the shirts arrived, they looked terrible. The knapsacks and shirts were different colors, and the thread color used on the knapsacks was too dark to show up on the shirts. Here’s how Spolsky tells the story:

I called up Lands’ End. As usual, a human answered the phone even before it started ringing. I’m pretty sure that they have a system where the next agent in the queue is told to standby, so customers don’t even have to wait for one ringy-dingy before they’re talking to a human.

I explained that I screwed up.

They said, “Don’t worry. You can return those for a full credit, and we’ll redo the shirts with a different color thread.”

I said, “The trade show is in two days.”

They said they would Fedex me a new box of shirts and I’d have it tomorrow. I could return the old shirts at my convenience.

They paid for shipping both ways. I wasn’t out a cent. Even though they had no possible use for a bunch of Fog Creek logo shirts with an illegible logo, they ate the cost.

And now I tell this story to everyone who needs swag. In fact, I tell this story every time we’re talking about telephone menu systems. Or customer service. By providing remarkable customer service, they’ve gotten me to remark about it.

When customers have a problem, and you fix it, they’re actually going to be even more satisfied than if they never had a problem in the first place.

You don’t have to set a high bar to delight your customers, as it turns out. Employing empathy and speaking to them as one human to another is often all it takes. But as you can see, the response is remarkable.

To find your own remarkable responses, listen to your customers. When they respond to your support with shock and awe, you know you’ve exceeded their expectations. Make a note of those instances, then see if you can find ways to repeat them.

Adopt a Minimum Viable Communications Process

Even when they’re delighted with your service, customers want to spend as little time as possible getting support. That’s why we recommend a “minimum viable” communication process.

Depending on your type of business, you may have customers reaching out with similar questions or complaints. For instance, in e-commerce, a frequent question might be, “Why haven’t I received my order yet?” In online training, you’ll get asked, “What’s my login?” And in SaaS, “How do I get started?”

To create a minimum viable answer, you need to pare down the question to its essentials. In most cases, you can answer these questions with a simple framework we call Now-Next-When:

  1. Now? Start your response by referencing the problem your customer is having.
  2. Next? Give your customer a simple next step.
  3. When? Finally, give them a timeline for when their problem will be resolved.

As an example, let’s say you want to answer the question, “Why haven’t I received my order yet?” Using the Now-Next-When framework, you’d replay:

Hi Customer,

We just got your email and were surprised to learn you haven’t received your order yet.

We followed up with our supplier, and it looks like your order hasn’t been shipped yet. We’ve just put a rush on a replacement and will have it shipped overnight at our expense.

We’re sorry for the inconvenience, but you should receive your product by the end of the day tomorrow.

Agent Name

To answer the question, “What’s my login?” you’d reply:

Hi Customer,

We got your email just a few hours ago. I’m sorry you’re having trouble getting into your training.

If you can’t remember your login, you can reset it by going to [password reset page].

It should only take a few minutes and then you’ll be in.

Notice how short and to-the-point these messages are. Yet they both follow the same format. The Now-Next-When framework gives you a simple structure that can apply to almost any problem — and it ensures you answer your customer’s deepest concerns:

  1. Have you heard me?
  2. What can be done to solve my problem?
  3. How long will it take?

Of course, if you make a promise to your customers, you must deliver as promised — or yes, you’ll see complaints — so stay on top of these emails. If you promised a next-day solution, follow up the next day to be sure the solution worked. If you learn there may be a delay, send another email letting your customer know what happened and what the new timeframe is.

Reducing complaints is about treating people as humans, letting them know you care about their happiness. Your ultimate goal is to “wow” them, but sometimes, you only need to be attentive to create a good experience.

So focus on the simple things. Give your customers what they want: fast, hassle-free support. Do your best to be proactive, removing the need for them to contact you at all. That may mean you need to build or update your knowledge base. It may mean you need to improve your product. But don’t resist. Invest whatever resources are needed to create a better customer experience.

Finally, create systems that help you repeat successful interactions. Use customer support conversations to identify the things that set you apart from your competition, then double down on those areas to create your “wow” experience.