A lot of research has been done on the topic of complaint handling. Having an unhappy customer in the first place has a lot to do with what the customer was expecting.
I got a necklace and earrings as a Christmas gift from my beloved, and the clasp on the necklace recently broke. I know it was not an expensive item, as necklaces go, but I had only worn it three, perhaps four times. So I thought perhaps the store would fix it, replace it, or something.
A dissatisfied consumer will consider their options:
- Seek redress for the problem i.e. complain to the company
- Complain to others -- negative word of mouth
- Vote with their feet -- change suppliers
Individual factors have a lot to do with who complains and who doesn't, but most people don't complain, and only about 5% of complaints ever get beyond the front line. If people think their complaint is likely to be successful, they are more likely to complain.
When I took the necklace in, the nice clerk raised my expectations considerably, and asked to keep the necklace so she could talk to the owner, and told me she was confident they would either replace the necklace or repair it for me. She wasn't sure they could replace it with an identical necklace (no problem, I said).
She called back later and crashed me on to the shores of disappointment, by telling me approximately this:
- The necklace was several months old (but I only wore it a few times, I protested)
- The necklace is out of stock, so they could not replace it (but what about something similar -- that would be fine...)
- They are not jewellers, and do not repair jewellery, however they were confident the necklace could be repaired by a jeweller, so I should come by and pick it up
- She was personally sorry to have to tell me this
I was disappointed with this, and said I wished to talk to the owner myself. Naturally, she could not give out the number, but promised to pass the message along.
Distributive Justice, Procedural Justice, Interactional Justice
People expect a fair outcome from a complaint (distributive justice). They expect not to have to jump through a lot of procedural hoops to make the complaint (such as returning the item in the original packaging); that's procedural justice. And they want to be treated fairly throughout the process by the people involved (interactional justice).
When I got a call the next day from a second store clerk, I started experiencing some injustice. The second clerk basically implied that I had been wearing the necklace for months, that the store was a small business just trying to survive, and that they couldn't exchange things months after their purchase.
As the conversation went on, I was lumped in with all sorts of people who try to exchange things months after they have been wearing them, because they want something different.
She then suggested several times that she should take the necklace to her friend, the jeweller Zack, and he would fix it for me, she was sure it would not be too expensive. (thanks, but no thanks).
When I reviewed all the details (yet again - only wore it a few times), I said I still wanted the opportunity to talk to the owner. But the owner was now out of town, and did not have time to speak with me. (Okay, I confess, this really ticked me off, and I suggested the owner just didn't want to talk to an unhappy customer) On and on this horrid conversation went, to the point where I was actually starting to get upset and lose my cool.
The second clerk told me that when the owner heard the full circumstances, that she now understood I wasn't trying to "scam" the store, she was also confident that the owner would do something to rectify things. They would be in touch.
Meanwhile, my small problem, and probably a $10 repair bill was starting to grow horns and expand into an ugly lump of discomfort. And in making my point, I started feeling like I was abusing these young women working in the store. Now we are all unhappy, and getting unhappier by the minute.
Service Recovery Effort
Later that same day, the owner left me a voice-message. She said she could no longer return the necklace to the manufacturer, and their policy was two week replacement only (first I'd heard of that...perhaps a training issue with the clerks?), and closed off by saying she was hoping I would continue to be a customer.
Is it Cognitive Consistency, or Just The Embarassment Factor
I was glad to have had the call from the owner. I think she should have thrown me a small treat of some sort, like a discount on next purchase. But here's the big problem. Now I'm embarassed at making a fuss out of something small, and getting upset, and I don't even want to go in to pick up the necklace.
This is not at all unusual for people. The biggest problem in retaining a customer after things get ugly is that there is no happy feeling anymore. Let me give you another example, this time of a resort.
My friend and loyal reader, R.B., told me that he thought a resort we have both enjoyed -- a premium priced lodge in Northern Ontario, had gone downhill. After his last stay, he sent a letter outlining his unhappiness to the resort. They never replied.
Now, he says he feels he can't go back. "I would have gone back if they'd only replied to my letter", he says. There aren't that many nice lodges in the wilderness, so now he's got a problem. I am in total sympathy with this.
My law firm sends out a survey every time you conduct any real business with them. But knowing how dependent we are on a lawyer when we really need them, who can respond honestly to such a thing unless it's anonymous? And as I discovered recently, it's not anonymous. (I gave them high ratings on everything, but indicated in my comments that they should not bill me six minutes for sending me a follow-up e-mail asking if they can invoice me, and then call it client correspondence. How sorry I was that I said that, triggering a series of phone calls and hand-wringing. What on earth was I thinking?)
Doing it Right
Service recovery is really an art. It needs to be fast, it needs to be fair (probably more than fair, actually), it needs to come with a smile, and it needs to leave the relationship intact or better.
When service recovery is done well, people who experience it are more loyal than people who have never had a problem, never complained. This has been well documented in reams of research, and is a secret weapon for the firms that do it well.
Speaking personally, I have put in extra unbilled days on lots of client projects to ensure that the final outcome met or exceeded the client's expectations, even when this was well beyond our contractual commitment. But I doubt I'll ever get the chance to respond to a complaint, because I suspect clients to vote with their feet as their opening response. (all input welcome on that subject, what's your experience?)
Wish Me Luck
Here's my plan. I'm going to drop by the store later today and pick up the offending necklace, and take it to a jeweller down the street. I'm hoping to hit the store when it's busy enough that I can avoid a reprise of the entire conversation wherein they try to convince of their point of view. And I'm hoping the jeweller doesn't give me a lecture about how the thing is too cheap to be worth fixing. If he does, I'm using the "senitmental value" gambit. I might even wear the matching earrings (which I really love) into the shop in an expression of goodwill.
Cross your fingers for me, okay?