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Ten ways to handle complaints brilliantly

complaint button

By Debbie Kirlew

Exceptional complaint handling has always been as much about the individual and their specific issue as it is about the business and its culture as a whole, but digital media has added another dimension to the process.

Philip Deacon, marketing manager at Ridgeway, who heads a team that monitors and responds to social media and livechat until midnight, said: “Customers will now very quickly take to social media. In the past. if someone wanted to make an official complaint they would have to make the effort to write a letter and post it, by which time most would have calmed down.”

Meanwhile, Dr William Holden, chairman of business growth consultancy Sewells, said: “Customers are now complaining more; they are certainly more litigious.”

We asked dealers, manufacturers, suppliers and industry experts for their top tips on dealing with disgruntled customers.


Fact find

Establishing the facts, or at least understanding the story from the customer’s perspective, is the first step, although Holden warned: “Probably the biggest difficulty is understanding what is a genuine complaint and who is a serious complainant.

“Engage in a real and proper dialogue to establish the issue and use your judgement to establish if there’s something genuine. The problem is employees with less experience are the ones who end up making that call and people who are most experienced are actually the ones best able to make that judgement.”


Take ownership

Samantha Cripps, head of sales development at Alphera Financial Services, advised: “Rather than having the complaint handled by multiple people with poor communications, ensure one person owns it and remains the focal point of contact.”

Philip Crossman, managing director at Honda UK, advised dealers that even when a complaint is escalated to the manufacturer, active involvement and ownership remains crucial. He said: “We recommend taking it on for your customer. Don’t just hand over the phone number for the customer relations team and wash your hands of it.”


Respond quickly

Trusted Dealers requires members to adhere to its ‘10 points of difference’, which are largely geared to avoiding issues in the first place. However, managing director Neil Addley said: “If something does go wrong, respond quickly. It’s much better to resolve something straight away and the best way to achieve that is empowering staff.”

Deacon agreed: “People can complain instantly and it can become more volatile more quickly so we need to deal with it promptly. The first response is to acknowledge the complaint. We then allocate the complaint to the most appropriate person and track until resolved.”

Dale Woodley, sales director of independent customer review site JudgeService, advises asking specific questions to glean valuable information, which often identifies easily rectifiable ‘niggles’. He said: “Often it’s the things that are easy to fix.”

Crossman added: “Always do what you said you would. Not calling your customer back when you said you would can exacerbate the situation and make the customer even angrier.”


Listen and empathise

Listening sounds easy, but can prove difficult in practice. Holden advocates taking further steps: paraphrase the customer’s complaint to show understanding of the issue and empathise without agreeing.

He said: “You should not offer a solution too early or challenge the facts, because it doesn’t matter, this is how the customer feels. You have to say things like ‘if it happened the way you describe, I can understand why you feel this way’. Choose your words carefully. If you start challenging their version of events, you will find yourself in an antagonistic situation.”

Crossman agreed: “Nine times out of 10, the complaint is not personal. If you show empathy as they let off steam, they will quickly deflate. There’s a massive difference between hearing and listening.”


Ask the ‘killer’ question

According to Holden, an employee should simply politely ask ‘what would you like us to do about it?’ He said: “Keep the conversation under control and get to the killer question; it’s amazing, most people say they only want an apology.”




Don’t have any

Flippant and unrealistic perhaps, but striving for zero complaints should be a goal. Cripps said: “The best way of dealing with complaints is not to have any in the first place. But it is the customer’s prerogative to complain and if that happens dealers need to take ownership, get to the root cause and identify where something has gone wrong and put it right for next time. You need to learn from your mistakes.”

Motor Codes advises providing customers with all the facts and underlining potential outcomes, for example, intermittent faults could have underlying issues, so a full explanation of possible work can avoid complaints about unexpected bills.


Transparency and clear communications

In 2012, Ridgeway introduced a feedback area on its homepage, which enabled direct contact with chief executive John O’Hanlon. When it launched its new website last year, it refined its process, introducing ‘customer experience sections’ for each franchise headed up by the respective brand director.

Having an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) provider in place (which Ridgeway does) means if a complaint is not resolved to the satisfaction of the customer they can take their dispute to an independent body. Both Motor Codes and Trusted Dealers provide ADR services.

Kevin Parker, head of marketing and communications at Motor Codes, said: “An ADR provider can help defuse situations, manage any unreasonable expectations and ensure a fair outcome is reached without the need for legal action.”

Addley said: “Some customers make unreasonable demands. ADR provides another way to reach a resolution and it’s backed up by statutory undertakings.”

Adopting transparency throughout the business will minimise complaints and provide vital evidence should any arise. Motor Codes offers some simple advice such as making new and used car descriptions clear and ensuring they match the goods being purchased, particularly since the introduction of the Consumer Rights Act 2015. The Act gives consumers a short-term right to reject as well as the right to reject one attempt at repair after 30 days, so ensuring that consumers understand what constitutes a repair attempt is imperative.

Parker said: “Make sure staff are familiar with their legal obligations and that they communicate clearly and accurately about the goods for sale.”


Audit trail

An audit trail is essential for future reference should a business have to illustrate how a complaint was handled. It may be time-consuming, but it may also save your bacon.

Parker said: “We see some complaints where a consumer will allege that damage occurred while in the care of a retailer. These disputes can be one person’s word against another unless the retailer implements a damage report into its policy. This protects the dealer from any spurious claims, but also protects the consumer if the vehicle is genuinely damaged.”

Motor Codes recommends other forms of audit trails, such as videoing the vehicle health check and keeping all parts until the vehicle is returned to the customer so should a dispute occur, they are available for third-party inspection.


Root cause

For Cripps, a single complaint has wider implications. She said: “It is not just looking at one customer in isolation; it’s looking for the root cause. This is a real focus for the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).

“It’s the realisation that if it has happened to one person, it can happen to another and not looking at complaints purely on an individual basis. wants to see dealers have undertaken their due diligence and got to the root cause of an issue.”

It also makes recording all complaints essential for spotting trends and taking action.

Woodley said: “We ask people why they don’t buy; that’s an important part of understanding not just the opportunities to do more business, but where your processes are falling down, which helps to head off complaints at the pass.”


Under-promise & over-deliver

Crossman said: “It is better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around. You need to balance the needs of the customer with the needs of the business. Then when you do over-deliver, the customer is delighted.”

Parker said: “The little touches can all add to the consumer’s perception they are dealing with a professional and customer-focused service.”

Meanwhile, Cripps urged dealers to consider specific complaint-handling training and even employ dedicated staff to deal with complaints.

Finally, Woodley said maintaining a relationship with a customer can help avoid complaints. He said: “We contact customers 18 months into ownership to ask about their experience. We then get a view about whether they are happy with the service and it provides another opportunity to head off anything which may have since emerged.”

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  • Rick Baldwin - 18/12/2016 09:43

    This is an interesting article with obviously good intentions but as a past Institute of Marketing graduate and a complainant against Ridgeway BMW I feel obliged to say that these good intentions are largely a matter of marketing fluff. In my own experience I have been trying for months to get Ridgeway, now Marshall, to accept at the highest level that they must respect the Consumer Rights Act 2015.