Using Customer Complaints for Improvement

April 1, 2011
Customer complaints are a gift that provides you with an opportunity for improvement. With the right tactics, you just might be able to turn those unhappy campers into the biggest advocates for your business.

A customer recently came into ARA Collision CARSTAR in Everett, Wash., with a Chevrolet truck that needed a new bumper. Shop owner Kevin Parsons acquired a brand new bumper to install.

But when the customer came to pick up the vehicle, he said the new part looked terrible. The shine of the new bumper wasn’t as good as the previous one, Parsons admits. But there wasn’t anything he could do. “Chevrolet is always choosing new manufacturers to make their bumpers,” Parsons says, noting this causes the parts to have slightly different finished looks.

The customer wasn’t buying it. Parsons says the customer insinuated he did something shady by installing an inferior bumper and billing him for a brand new one—even though the part had all the stamps and markings to prove what it was worth.

“We went so far above and beyond our responsibility to help [the customer] out,” Parsons says, noting he even put the customer in touch with a re-chroming company to see if there was anything that could be done to shine up the bumper.

“It’s five times cheaper to retain an existing customer than it is to market and achieve a new one.”
— Scott Wheeler, west region services manager for Akzo Nobel

Because of Parsons’ efforts to spend extra time with the customer and educate him about the part and Chevrolet’s processes, the customer finally realized Parsons was on his side. The customer came back to apologize, and told Parsons that ARA was his shop of choice forever because of the level of service he experienced. He even called Parsons’ customer service indexing company, Customer Research Inc., to change the CSI score he gave the shop from a dismal three to a perfect 10. And that customer stuck to his word. He has been back and will probably continue to use the shop for future repairs.

It’s a common enough scenario for collision repairers: The shop did everything possible to do good work, yet the customer found a way to blame the problem on the shop. As tempting as it might be to throw your hands up and refuse to do anything more, it might be in your best interest to show a little patience. There are effective tactics to change the minds of unhappy customers. Put them to use and your nightmare customer might just become one of the biggest promoters of your business.

It’s Worth the Hassle

On the surface, it might seem like a huge waste to spend extra time dealing with customer complaints like Parsons does. Not quite: Customer service is one of the main reasons people either become raving fans of your business or choose to go elsewhere. Before you toss those complainers out your door, it might benefit you to look at the silver lining first.

Look at customer complaints as a gift, says Scott Wheeler, west region services manager for Akzo Nobel. You have to thank customers for complaining because it gives your shop an opportunity for improvement.

Why would anybody consider thanking a customer for complaining? Sounds backward, right? Not exactly: Wheeler says 80 percent of customers who have a complaint will not tell the shop about it. They feel the shop failed to deliver and will take their business elsewhere in the future.

So the few customers who choose to voice their complaint are actually giving you an opportunity to change their mind and retain their business. After all, it’s five times cheaper to retain an existing customer than it is to market and achieve a new one, Wheeler says.

And spending a little extra time with customers to correct their bad experience allows you to curb the negative effect that can be caused by them bad-mouthing you in the community, says Angie Goff, owner of Goff’s Collision Repair Centers, based in Waukesha, Wis. With social media and online review systems like, customers can let thousands of people know about their bad experience instantly. You need to stop customer complaints before those online reviews tarnish your reputation. (For specific tips on using as a marketing tool, see the  article “Yelp Help.")

Turn It Around

Collision repairers obviously strive for perfection. But in a service profession, that’s not always going to happen. And that’s OK, as long as you’ve got the skills to effectively handle unhappy customers. Here are a few tactics that will help you in those situations:

• Let the customer vent for two minutes. Bring the customer into a private area of your facility and let them get everything off their chest. Even let them yell if they have to, Wheeler says.

• Offer an apology. Whether or not the problem was your fault doesn’t make a difference, Wheeler says. You start to calm the customer and diffuse the situation by apologizing for not meeting the customer’s expectations. Don’t argue with the customer.

• Rephrase what they said. Paraphrase the complaints they made. Rephrasing lets the customer know you listened to them and that you understood everything they were saying. It also ensures you’re clear on what their problems are, says Eric McKenzie, body shop director at Park Place BodyWerks in Dallas.

• Disarm with empathy. You can soothe the customer by speaking softly and slowly, McKenzie says. If you talk professionally, remain calm and don’t match the customer’s negative energy, they will typically calm down and realize they’re overreacting. Yelling and arguing won’t get you anywhere.

• Find common ground. Figure out what you and the customer agree on, and start working toward a resolution of the problem from there, Wheeler says.

• Ask the customer what they need to feel whole again. Resolution will be really tough if you don’t know what the customer expects from you, Wheeler says. Generally, customers have pretty realistic expectations on how they want you to correct the situation.

“Customers really notice when you do everything in your power to make them happy, and will become advocates for your business.”
— Scott Wheeler, west region services manager for Akzo Nobel

• Ask a lot of questions and listen, says Steve Sturken, owner of Sturken Auto Body Inc., whose shop has received 100 percent CSI scores for the past three consecutive years. What the customer wants in order to correct the situation is often less than what you might initially think they want. In fact, many customers just want to be heard and don’t want anything except for you to simply acknowledge the problem happened.

• Don’t joke about the situation. Many customers won’t file complaints because they feel the employees are poking fun backstage and belittling their problems. That’s no way to improve business. Shop leaders need to let every employee know that customer complaints are serious and need to be approached as a learning experience.

• Initiate contact quickly. ‘The longer that customers sit out there upset about something, the more damage they’re doing to your company,” Goff advises. “Today’s customers want things done yesterday; they don’t want to wait until next week to have a problem fixed.”
Goff will send an employee out to pick up a customer’s vehicle at their home or work in order to get the problem fixed immediately—and most conveniently for the customer.

• Offer alternative solutions. If a customer’s complaint is not your fault, offer guidance to help the customer find other solutions to their problem. Offer contact information for other places they can look to for help.

• Make corrections on the spot. McKenzie’s estimators make any corrections that take 30 minutes or less on the spot so customers don’t have to go through further hassle with rescheduling an appointment.

• Get the top-level management involved. A lot of shop operators will have their front office personnel handle the situation. But that’s the wrong way to go about it, Goff says. The customer has already had a problem with that person, and likely does not want to continue dealing with them.

Customers with complaints want to hear from the owner or top manager, Goff says. “The higher up the person is who customers are speaking with, the happier they become because they know that person is a decision-maker for the business.” Goff recommends speaking with the customer face-to-face or making a personal phone call. Don’t try to deal with the situation through email.

• Educate the customer. Some customers will come in with cars that have scratches and dents all over the exterior, Sturken says. They will try to point out one specific ding that they think happened at the shop. In those cases, Sturken says he takes some time to explain why he feels it’s not the shop’s fault.

A ding or dent on older cars will show signs of wear, Sturken says. It might have rust, wax or dirt built up in it. Those things are good indicators that the problem has actually been there for a while, and you can help the customer understand that.

From Rags to Riches

Most people who take the time to complain are passionate and emotional, Wheeler says. But when you turn that customer around, the situation becomes equally emotional in your favor. “Customers really notice when you do everything in your power to make them happy, and will become advocates for your business.”

So complaints are actually drivers for future success, Wheeler says. Don’t believe it? Just look at the facts.

Dusty Dunkle, president of Customer Research Inc., cites a study by the Harvard Business Review that reveals the significance of customer complaints:

• One upset customer will tell 14 people about their bad experience.

• If the business lets the customer vent their complaint, the customer will only tell seven people about their bad experience.

• If the business makes an attempt to resolve the situation, the customer won’t bad-mouth you to anybody.

• If the business successfully resolves the problem, the customer will tell five others how great you are.

“A completely satisfied customer—who has no problems at all—will only tell three other people how great you are,” Dunkle says, noting that this survey was completed before the explosion in social media use, so these numbers are even more pronounced now. “When you turn someone’s bad experience into a positive one, you have more of a promoter for your business than someone who was completely satisfied throughout the entire process.”

Goff agrees. You have a lot more conversation and face time with that customer, she says, which gives the customer a personal connection to you. “When you follow up with them to make sure they’ve been taken care of, it’s almost like creating a friend.”

For tips on avoiding customer complaints in the first place, see the article “Silver Lining."

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