Client Complaints: Fight it, or just Fix It?
Advice Processes & Best Practice Advice & Compliance & Practice Management

Client Complaints: Fight it, or just Fix It?

July 9, 2024

by Tony Vidler  CFP logo   CLU logo  ChFC logo

Client complaints are a fact of life.  It is virtually impossible to run a service business where everyone is happy 100% of the time, as human beings are involved and they are unpredictable creatures with ever-shifting expectations.  The art of good client complaint handling is knowing when to fight and when to just fix it.


The customer is always right?  
No they’re not!


I don’t subscribe to the theory that “the customer is always right”.  They aren’t.  Some are stupid and unreasonable.  Or just downright unfair.  Some actually deliberately try to obtain a benefit for themselves that they KNOW they aren’t entitled to at somebody else’s expense.  Human beings are quite simply often irrational, and when it comes to human beings who happen to be clients there is a tendency for expectations to shift over the duration of the relationship. In other words, what they said they wanted and expected when they first signed on is often transformed into wanting something else a little while later – without necessarily actually telling the adviser of the changed expectations.


So customers are not always right – especially not complaining customers.


A complaint in practical terms is anything which is an expression of dissatisfaction by a customer where they expect action.  Dissatisfaction can, and often is, warranted.  Dissatisfaction is the gap between expectations and experience.  But dissatisfaction is not itself a complaint.


This is an important distinction which should make a fundamental difference to how advisers handle unhappy clients.


The client who is dissatisfied with portfolio performance or product pricing is not necessarily making a complaint. They are venting their frustration and disappointment of course, but do they actually expect you to do something about it beyond listening and acknowledging their feelings? Do they expect you to change the portfolio to get better results, or are they just wanting to let you know that they are unhappy?  Or do they expect you to find a better price, or are they just letting you know that they do not like it because they know it is a waste of time ctrying to complain to an institution?


When clients vent their disappointment or frustration it is not necesarily a complaint.  It is a complaint when they express their dissatisfaction and expect you to do something about it.  So the first step in deciding whether to fight a complaint or fix it is understanding whether it is in fact actually a complaint.  If it is not, then listen and empathise and soothe.  Acknowledging their right to be unhappy about something is often the only action required.


But then there will be the occasional expectation of action.  Thy are not happy and they want something done about it….it is now a complaint.  So do you fight complaints or fix them?  The general industry response is to always try and fix them, right?  But sometimes you simply cannot.  Sometimes the expected action is beyond your ability or influence, and sometimes it is just downright unreasonable.


Regardless of the rights or wrongs of it, customers are always consumers with voices who can (and often will) do enormous damage to a business reputation if that dissatisfaction is not resolved.  For the practice manager, or owner, this means that regardless of the right or wrong of it we have to make a commercial decision to protect ourselves and our brand – even perhaps when the customer is not right.


Quick Triage Questions before you categorise complaints


So when a complaint turns up we have to figure out pretty quickly:
  1.  is the complaint legitimate?
  2. is the customer being reasonable?
  3. is my (or the firms) brand going to take a hit if we get this wrong?
  4. would it be best if we just made this go away quickly?
  5. OR…is this a big enough deal, which is either potentially so damaging or is something which challenges our values, that we must fight it to maintain our integrity?


If the answer to Question 5 is “YES” – then fight it. But that is one of the only 2 times to to fight it.  The other is when the fight started before you even knew there was a problem (for example; litigation or dispute proceedings are your first indicator).  When Pearl Harbour happens to you on an otherwise pleasant Sunday morning, you are left with no choice but to fight, because the fight started without you.

On any other occasion though we have an opportunity to take the grumpy face and turn it into a smiley face.


Handling any complaint involves time, and stress, and resources that could be better employed elsewhere.  There is a cost to us in other words, even if we ultimately are proven to be “right”.  If we do go through a process of proving how right we are, and how wrong the customers complaint is, we then incur the ill-will of an aggrieved customer as well as the aforementioned costs.  It is virtually impossible to quantify what the potential cost is of us fighting a relatively minor complaint just so we can prove how right we were, but it will usually be a lot more than most practitioners think.


Almost inevitably there will be some form of physical cost involved in putting things right for the customer at the end of it all as well.  In a best case scenario in other words, we have a customer who is no longer disgruntled, but is still probably not fully gruntled because of the process we have just gone through.  We are stressed, and it cost a lot of downtime…and all that for a customer who is now probably going to leave us and have a bit to say about how painful we were.


The Best Course Of Action

The best course of action is to pretend that the customer is right.  I say “pretend” because that is what we have to do – we might know we are right, but we have to put that knowledge to one side, and treat the customer as if they were right.

Then make a good commercial decision.

Bring the cost to the front of the process.  Use it to create genuine good will and delight that customer.  Avoid the protracted and painful process that results in equivalent doses of unhappiness, and just bring the end result right up to the front of the process. Ask the question:

“What do I need to do to make this right for you?”


Money is perhaps a solution, but often enough it isn’t about money.  It is about “putting things right” and doing it with 100% attention so they know that they are valued.  But then spend a little bit of the money that it would otherwise have cost you to introduce a bit of awesomeness. Surprise and delight them with something unexpected over and above the “putting it right”.


The end result is that if you approach the complaints this way they will tend to be resolved a heck of a lot more quickly, and result in happy clients who are closer to being warm advocates for your business rather than snipers gunning for you.  The key is asking the right questions at the front end, and understanding when it has to be a fight, and when the fight should just be avoided.

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