A Big Mistake: Promising to Handle a Complaint, Then Letting It Slide

Jan 24, 2019

By AMA Staff

You’ve had a busy day—haven’t we all? The phone rings, and it is one of your customers with a complaint about a delivery delay. “Yes, yes, I understand,” you say to placate the angry caller. “I will make sure that you get your delivery first thing in the morning,” you promise.

To keep your word, you know that you’ll have to run over to the shipping department to determine the reason for the delay.  After that, you will have to call the warehouse and ask the crew to cut short its break to get the package out.  As you reach for the phone, you see the stack of papers on your desk. “When I have time, I’ll see to it,” you promise yourself, knowing that the promise you just made yourself isn’t any more likely to be kept as the one you just made to your customer.

“After all,” you rationize, “I have more to worry about than one carton that arrives a day or two late.”

This isn’t a small mistake. It can even be a career killer if you gain a reputation as someone who makes promises he or she doesn’t keep. If you think that you aren’t likely to make a habit of not following up on complaints from customers—that this is the one and only time it will happen--let me introduce you to Bob.

Bob is no different from you. That is, if you looked at his desk, you would see stacks of paper on it. If you listened, you could hear the never-ending calls from customers, happy and not so happy. All day, he juggles orders. Unfortunately, he’s learned a little trick. Big accounts get almost all of his attention, small accounts get proportionate service--sometimes no service at all.

There are consultants who would suggest that this makes tremendous business sense—it’s the 80/20 rule, in which 20% of your accounts—the big ones—account for 80% of your revenue. But there are some assumptions here. One is that these smaller accounts won’t ever grow to a size where their business will matter to your company and the second is that those with whom you are now dealing will not have long memories. Or, here’s another potential situation: the small accounts might get together at a trade conference, compare notes, and take their business, en masse, to another supplier.

This last is what happened in Bob’s case. And, worse, his supervisor heard why from one of the people with whom Bob dealt. Bob wasn’t fired, but he also wasn’t given an opportunity to demonstrate that he could change. The boss brought in someone else to handle the smaller accounts. And this individual demonstrated that in time he could bring in more revenue from these smaller accounts than Bob had. They are still small contractors but, due to the closer relationship with the new sales representative, they give almost 100%  of their business to the company. When the next management position opens up, Bob isn’t sure who will get the position, he or the newcomer, even with the job Bob is doing with the firm’s big accounts.

Is it too late for Bob to do anything to improve his odds for promotion? Actually, it isn’t. He has to take a lesson from his competitor and, first, build a tighter relationship with the buyers from the big firms. It’s time for him to go out into the field and check to see if they are happy with the materials they are receiving and the service they are getting. Just as important, on these sales trips, he should  be observant about other sales opportunities. What other supplies can his firm provide?

In essence, he has to see to it that his big accounts continue to bring in the same percentage of sales as the smaller accounts, no matter the efforts of the newcomer.

Could Bob have prevented the situation in which he finds himself? Of course, he could have. And I’m not going to suggest that he could have kept his promises to the smaller buyers. That is a given in today’s customer-centric environment, in which companies compete based on their ability to delight customers. But let’s be realistic. If Bob was as busy as most managers are in today’s lean organizations, keeping track of every order from every buyer, big accounts and small, might have been impossible. Given the realities of the workplace, the situation might have demanded more a management solution than a service one. Let’s consider two options that might have been available. 

1. Determine if there is a pattern in the problems occurring. If there is, practice preventative management. There’s a process called  problem sensing, and it is based on periodic monitoring of workflow to identify any recurring situations that could be creating problems, like delayed shipments to smaller accounts. For instance, the warehouse might have a system in place that gives short shrift to smaller orders, like storing supplies for smaller buyers in hard-to-reach locations. Or the accounting department may bunch smaller orders, addressing the needs of the big contractors first.

If Bob could have identified the cause for recurring delays, he could have asked for a systems change that would have put an end to delivery complaints.

2. Ask for help. Why not? Even in today’s lean organizations, you can get new staff if you can make a strong enough business case. Bob could have done an analysis of the situation and gone to his supervisor with a proposal that more revenue would be possible if he had staff support, even only a clerk, so he would be free to work more closely with the big accounts. Bob’s new report would be assigned to work with the smaller buyers, looking for further sales opportunities. Any increased sales might be due to the newcomer’s work, but Bob would have got the credit for coming up with the idea. And he would have shown his management skill to his boss, thereby demonstrating his readiness for promotion to a management position, should one become available. 

Even if Bob had a new hire, he would have been expected to handle customer complaints. And here are some rules to follow when faced with a complaining customer:

When you hear from a customer with a complaint, listen. Don’t think that it is enough to explain why the problem happened. Rather, see if you can come up with a satisfactory solution to the problem. Certainly don’t become defensive, looking to place the blame on the customer.

Treat complaints from customers as opportunities to better serve them. Learn from the complaint what is important to the buyer. If you listen between the lines, you may even determine what your organization could do to make customers do business with it instead of others.

Just as you listen to customers, listen to contact or frontline people. If you punish your frontline people when they bring you customer complaints or feedback, they will find ways to keep future feedback from you. And, again, the information could help you avoid service problems in the future and gain a competitive advantage for your organization. So encourage your frontline people to ask for feedback. You can even be a role model by asking customers for feedback with frontline people present.

Be assertive in soliciting customer feedback. Despite that large stack of papers on your desk, there is nothing you or your people are doing that is more important than taking care of customers. That process doesn’t end with ringing up a sale. Stimulate the dialogue with words like, “We are really anxious to do all we can to improve our service, and your feedback would be very helpful.”

Use negative feedback to improve performance, not punish staff. When you get complaints from customers regarding your people, thank the customer involved for the information and make it clear that you will check into the problem, but without either blaming your employees or “shooting the messenger,” like defending the warehouse staff on general principles despite a late delivery.

About the Author(s)

AMA Staff American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.