Ask Collegewise: How do you handle customer complaints?

Kristen asks:

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I'm the counseling director at an independent school in Maryland and I was wondering if you could give me some advice about how to handle parents who complain, especially when the problems they're experiencing aren't necessarily our fault.  These parents are our customers and they're paying a lot of money for their kids to be here.  But sometimes it feels like we're apologizing for things we really shouldn't have to apologize for, like when a student doesn't get into a highly competitive college we told him was out of his reach in the first place.  How do you make those parents happy without capitulating when you shouldn't have to?"

We train our counselors to do four things whenever a customer has a concern or a complaint.

1. Acknowledge the problem.

Imagine you took half a day off of work to wait for the cable guy at home and he never showed.  So you call the cable company and they tell you, “We have you on the schedule for tomorrow, not today."  They’re pretty much telling you that you’re wrong.  They don’t care that you waited all day.  Now instead of just being upset, you're furious.

If a customer thinks there is a problem, no matter who's fault it is, the first step is to just acknowledge it.  Hear their concern.  Show them that you’re on their team.  You don’t necessarily have to admit that you screwed up if you didn’t.  But to just say, “I can’t believe you had to wait for four hours and we didn’t show up.  I completely understand why you're frustrated”—that makes all the difference.  You’re acknowledging the problem, and you’re showing the customer that you care.

2. Apologize for the problem.  And mean it.

Has anyone in the history of customer service ever felt better when a business says, “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused"?  No.  So why do businesses even bother saying it? 

A real apology is sincere.  It comes from a human being.  There’s some remorse and regret expressed.  It’s an honest expression that you feel badly for your customer and wish that things were going better.

If the situation really is your fault, then you’ve got to own up to it.  You have to say some version of, “You’re right.  We totally screwed up.  There’s nobody else we can blame for it, and I'm so sorry that we let you down.”

But if it’s not your fault, apologizing doesn’t necessarily mean you have to accept blame.  Years ago, a mother in our program called and yelled at me because her son’s application to his dream school wasn’t done yet and the deadline was in just two days.  We’d left voicemails for the kid and the parent for weeks.  We’d sent emails to both.  When we didn’t get a reply, I mailed a letter home addressed to the mother telling her we were worried about them and needed to hear back.  I didn’t feel one ounce of blame for this situation, and I didn’t accept any.  But I did say,

“I’m so sorry about the stress this is causing in your house right now.  Families enroll in our program to avoid exactly this kind of situation, and I feel terrible that you had to find out at the last minute that David was behind.”  

A sincere apology is usually the first step towards reconciliation.  Your customer will be more likely to acknowledge any role they might have played in this problem, and they'll be more open to whatever solution you offer.

3. Take ownership of the problem and do something about it. 

Is this a problem that can be fixed?  If so, your customer wants to know that something is going to be done to address the situation.  But more importantly, they want to know that somebody is making it a priority, that one person is taking ownership of it. 

One effective way to approach the problem is to promise to follow up by a specific date and time. 

Wrong way:  “I need to speak with our editor to find out the status of David’s essays.  I’ll let you know as soon as I hear back from her.”

Right way:  “I want to speak with our editor about this.  So I’m going to call her as soon as I get off the phone with you.  Hopefully she’ll pick right up, but if for some reason I don’t hear back from her by the close of business tonight, would it be OK if I called you by no later than 6 p.m. tonight just to update you?  I don’t want to make you sit around for another day wondering what happened.” 

Don’t ever make it your customer’s job to follow up with you.  Take on the responsibility not just of fixing the problem, but also of letting your customer know that you’ve fixed it.

4.    Leave this situation and your customer better off than you found them.

Problems can sometimes be a good thing.  They let you show your customer just how much you care about their experience.  When you listen, acknowledge the problem, offer up a sincere apology, and personally take on the effort to try to fix it, the customer will feel better.  She’ll be reminded why she trusted you in the first place. 

And if the problem is one that you just can’t fix, taking the steps above will still leave the customer better off than when she came to you with the complaint.

Thanks for your question, Kristen.  I hope it helps.

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