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Learning From Complaining Customers

Some businesspeople assume that hearing nothing from customers is a sign that everything is all right.  Actually, the opposite is usually true.  Most customers are simply not all that vocal.  Here is a little statement that I first discovered in the kitchen of a Bend restaurant. Copies are posted on the walls of businesses all across the country:


I’m the nice customer.  You all know me.  I’m the one who never complains, no matter what kind of service I get.  I’ll go into a restaurant and sit quietly while the wait staff gossip and never bother to ask if anyone has taken my order.  Sometimes, someone who came in after I did gets waited on first, but I don’t complain.  I just wait.


And when I go to a store to buy something, I don’t throw my weight around.  I try to be thoughtful of the other person.  If a snooty salesperson gets upset because I want to look at several items before making up my mind, I’m just as polite as can be.  I don’t believe that rudeness in return is the answer.


The other day, I stopped at a full service gas station and waited for almost five minutes before the attendant took care of me.  And when he did, he spilled gas and wiped the windshield with an oily rag.  But did I complain about the service? Of course not.


I never kick.  I never nag.  I never criticize.  And I wouldn’t dream of making a scene, as I’ve seen some people do in public places.  I think that’s uncalled for.  No, I’m the nice customer. And I’ll tell you who else I am:


I’m the customer who never comes back!
--Author Unknown (but nice!)


How many “nice customers” have visited your business,  probably just once or twice, never to return?  If you have maintained such statistics, you’re certainly one of the few.  Simply because so many people are like this customer, any entrepreneur—and especially one dealing with consumers—needs a program for processing customer complaints.


Try to influence everyone in your company to think of complaining customers in a positive way.  Without customer feedback, you would have only a vague idea of what changes need to be made.  Also, how about giving them another name?  Instead of calling them “complainers,” consider calling them consultants or critics.


Trying to encourage complaints.  To encourage complaints, you must understand what a customer complaint is.  Usually it is not a personal attack, but an opportunity to improve.  Customer complaints inspire improvements to services that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.  When you have only a vague notion that a customer is unhappy, start asking questions, remaining as nonthreatening as possible.  If you get an answer that sounds less than complete or convincing, try probing further.  Your patience will usually pay dividends.


Listening carefully.  An emphasis on careful listening to complaints sends the signal to customers that yours is a customer-focused business.  When customers perceive that you are willing to listen, they will be much more likely to respond honestly and openly.  Consider using methods to stimulate customer complaints.  One company I know gives “consultant of the month” awards for the most helpful customer complaint.


Keeping records.  Also, try to keep a documented record of customer complaints.  The list should include dates and actions taken.  Don’t ignore isolated instances when things have gone wrong, but concentrate more on patterns in the feedback that your customers provide you.


Most importantly, work on constant improvement, acting on customer input to make your business the best it can possibly be.


Lowell Lamberton is professor of business at Central Oregon Community College.  For more information, feel free to contact Professor Lamberton at 541-383-7714 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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