I'm terribly sorry, but…

By: Clare Bullock

Date: 19 February 2010

It's every business–owner's nightmare: a furious customer on the end of a phone demanding to know why their purchase hasn't been delivered, why it's broken, or even to complain about a member of your staff. Even if the problem isn't actually your fault, it is crucial to have a proper complaints policy in place.

Recently I made a complaint for the first time and was gratified when I received a full and genuine–sounding letter of apology in return. I was less pleased a couple of weeks later when I received a call from the same company wanting feedback. Although I had been satisfied by the initial apology, being asked by a bored–sounding woman whether I was 'satisfied' or 'very satisfied' with the apology instantly grated. It was clear that the apology was merely part of a process; my answers were probably being tapped into a database as I spoke. For me, this meant that the sentiment of the original letter was lost.

Business Link advises business owners to deal with complaints 'courteously, sympathetically and – above all – swiftly'. Obviously it is important to find out whether your policy works – but is it a good idea to call up the recently–irate customer and take up more of their time only to fill out a brief questionnaire? How useful is a questionnaire anyway? I would suggest that the best feedback is whether the customer returns to you after having made a complaint.

Word–of–mouth recommendation is arguably the best PR for small businesses, but similarly a bad experience can damage your firm's reputation. It is vital to handle a customer's complaint sensitively and promptly, but at the same time ensure that you are motivated by the customer's needs, not just by the desire to prevent bad publicity.

It seems that many people I know have had bad experiences at the hands of larger companies, and this is an area where small businesses can excel. By its nature, a small business is much more likely to offer a personal touch when it comes to dealing with complaints. Rather than having to wait in endless queues, being passed from one customer service manager to another, your customers can connect with you directly to get the answers and, if necessary, the apologies they want.

What do you think? Have you ever had any complaints, and how did you handle them? Did you ask for feedback, and how did you implement it? Are you a customer whose complaints were handled well? If not, how could it have been improved?

Clare Bullock, BHP Information Solutions

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