Complaints: Know when to fight…or just “Fix It”
Advice Processes & Best Practice Advice & Compliance & Practice Management

Complaints: Know when to fight...or just "Fix It"

October 9, 2015

by Tony Vidler  CFP logo   CLU logo  ChFC logo

Customer 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.  The art of good customer 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.


Customers aren’t always right – especially not complaining customers.


A complaint in practical terms is anything which is an expression of dissatisfaction by a customer.  Dissatisfaction can, and often is, warranted.  Dissatisfaction is the gap between expectations and experience.


Staff and advisers cut corners, have distractions in their life, and they have bad days.  That’s life.  Customers have bad days too, and distractions in their life, and sometimes there is a disconnect between what they thought would happen and what we thought would happen, and we can all argue forever over who should have understood what without ever resolving that.  The end result is that there is an enormous number of potential opportunities on any given day for there to be a gap between a customers expectations, and the actual experience they have with our business.


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.

You may also find this post useful:
Complaints: where is your exposure in reality?
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Comments (4)

  • Good advice Tony. I would add that there are three important things to do when trying to resolve a complaint. 1. Ask your customer what they want done to fix the problem. Don’t assume you know. 2. Try and find out why. People who complain will have a motivating reason that often is not clear. 3. Come up with as many choices as possible to resolve the problem not just one. It’s far better to say ‘I can do this or this or this; which one appeals to you most’ than ‘I’m going to do this, is that ok?’.

    Trevor Slater
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