Learn to Love Complaining Clients

Brendon Sinclair

You’ll face moments of truth every day of your life. You’ll make decisions and take the consequences. The consequences can be good, they can be bad, but they are there for every action you take. Moments of truth can have a profound effect on your business, and complaints have enormous significance, so we’ll consider client complaints in this chapter.

It’s odd, but not one of the businesses I’ve canvassed over the years has a set policy for dealing with complaints — not a single one. The usual response I gained was that the business would deal with complaints as they came in, in a case-by-case manner. Some business owners simply replied, “We don’t receive many complaints.”

They don’t? It’s no great wonder! Just look at these statistics:

  • 4% of dissatisfied clients complain
  • 91% of dissatisfied clients won’t do business with you again
  • 80% of dissatisfied clients tell ten people
  • 20% of dissatisfied clients tell 20 people (“Consumer Complaint Handling in America: An Update Study,” Technical Assistance Research Program, White House Office of Consumer Affairs (Washington DC, 1986).)

Think about these figures. If your business receives four complaints per year, you’ve probably had 100 dissatisfied clients. If you’ve had 100 dissatisfied clients, they’ve told 1,200 people that your product or service is poor!

The actions you take when your client complains can have a significant impact on your business. The right response can result in increased client loyalty, a better chance that you’ll make a repeat sale, and boosted referral business. However, handle client complaints in the wrong way, and you might as well set money on fire. Learn to love clients who complain — they’re giving you a wonderful opportunity to grow your business. In fact, go out and dig up as many complaints as you possibly can: those complaining clients are gold!

We’ll also provide a step-by-step guide to dealing with complaints. You can’t go wrong when you have a sensible, well-planned strategy for addressing any complaints that clients make.

No business is perfect. Mistakes will be made, errors will occur. The question is: what will you do when complaints are made? For the answers, read on — but first, make sure you download this chapter for reference offline!

Loving Complaining Clients

Complaining clients can be a great asset to you as you build your business. Complaining clients will do more for you than just about any other clients.

Up until now, you may have looked upon complaining clients as a complete nuisance. They’re never happy; they’re never satisfied; they should learn to appreciate you more. If that sounds like you, then lose the attitude! To build a successful and profitable business, you must come to appreciate complaints.

Complaining clients tell you where you’re going wrong. They’re the ones at the front line, testing out your service. They’re the ones who, handled the right way, will become your most loyal clients. Seeking out and identifying client complaints is one of the most profitable activities in which a business can engage. When clients complain, they’re actually giving you an opportunity to keep their business — business you’d otherwise have lost, since the vast majority of dissatisfied clients will do business with you again if you resolve the complaint in their favor on the spot.

That’s the beauty of complaints: if you deal with them properly, and actively seek and welcome complaints, then word quickly travels. Clients will soon feel more comfortable about making complaints, which gives you the opportunity to reduce the number of dissatisfied clients, keep their business, strengthen the relationship, and exceed their expectations.

Fixing it Quick

Providing a swift resolution to complaints can have the wonderful effect of increasing client loyalty beyond the level that would have been achieved had the problem never occurred. Why? The client remembers that extra touch that you provided to resolve the situation quickly, and exceed their expectations.

As we’ve discussed, making a purchase carries a perceived risk. Your clients might be asking themselves:

  • “Will I get good value?”
  • “Will he run off with my deposit?”
  • “Will she give me what I want?”

These are three fairly common concerns of people who are in the market for a web site. But eventually, the prospects take the risk and buy from you. Excellent! Now, imagine that something goes wrong. This is not so great. The clients complain to you, feeling a little anxious that they haven’t received what they paid for, and you fix it. Excellence restored!

Now, you may be thinking that you’ve simply resolved a complaint; what you’ve really done is reduce those clients’ perceived risk in buying from you. They now know that if they buy from you, they’ll receive what they paid for. Importantly, they know that if there is the slightest problem, you’ll fix it without delay. As such, they’ll be more likely to buy from you again.

The lower the perceived risk, the more likely clients are to buy from you. As I’ve mentioned, my business offers a no-hassle, 100% money-back guarantee. We do that for a couple of reasons: it reduces the perceived risk for someone who’s thinking of buying our services, and ensures that our clients receive exactly what they paid for. After all, if we don’t give them what they paid for, we shouldn’t be paid. Simple!

Considering the Cost of a Good Complaint

Remember, the more complaints you hear about, the more complaints you can effectively address.

A complaint means you have the chance to generate more business from these clients that you wouldn’t have otherwise received. The more complaints you hear about and deal with, the fewer dissatisfied clients you’ll have talking to friends and colleagues about their bad experience with your business.

Don’t think of what it will cost to fix a complaint — think of what it will cost if you don’t fix it.

Providing Distinctive Service

I’m a big advocate of making your business distinctive. You’ll remember that we talked about building your own competitive edge in Chapter 7, Developing your Unique Advantage, and we saw how great service can really set you apart from the rest in Chapter 9, Providing Excellent Client Service. We saw that it’s crucial to make your business unique so that people hear about it — after all, people can buy your service only if they’re aware of it. Be known for unique things that are positive things.

Complaints are just another area of your business in which you can leverage your competitive advantage by providing excellent service. If you go out searching for those complaints, you’ll be fairly unique. If you provide a 100% money-back guarantee on your service, you could well be unique. If you deal with complaints in a fair and rapid manner, you’ll definitely be unique!

Most people believe they receive value for money when they buy a product. There isn’t really much scope to move on that; the prices are well documented, and it’s easy to compare products to products and prices to prices. Measuring value is difficult when the product is intangible, so the situation with services is very different. People are far more likely to be discontent with the value for money they receive, as it’s much harder to measure value for money when you’re talking about a service. Let’s say you charge $150 for a one-hour consultation with a client, while I charge $50. We both sit for an hour and talk with the client. Is your value three times mine? I have no idea, you have no idea, and in reality, the client has no idea. The only measurement the client can make here is a perception of value for money.

As we’ve already discussed, an enormous range of factors will influence that perception.

  • Your voice accounts for 38% of the impression you make on people.
  • How you look determines 55%.
  • Only 7% of the impression you make depends on what you say. (Albert Mehrabian, Silent Messages (Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1971).)

Let’s apply these statistics to our value-for-money comparison. If you sound better than me, the perception that you offer better value for money will hold true!

Just how important is distinctive service? Consider this Gallup Poll finding: 83% of those people surveyed identified their number-one reason for deciding not to return to a restaurant as poor service. Not the food; not the price: the service. Likewise, a Washington Post survey found that almost half of all shoppers believe service is mediocre and becoming worse. Other research suggests that more than 40% of consumers experiencing problems are unhappy with the action taken to resolve their complaints.

There’s no substitute for service. Many businesses today try to make up for poor service with lower prices, but quality is the compelling feature you need to project in order to survive and be profitable. If you provide quality, you can charge more. If you charge more, you’ll be more profitable. If you’re more profitable, you’ll have the resources to allocate to ensuring quality stays high. That’s the cycle you need to jump into, because there’s nothing more difficult than struggling to pay your bills and trying to generate new business. You don’t have money for those ads or that mailout or that pay-per-click campaign. Generate some momentum in your business in terms of cashflow, and you’ll find business so much easier as you’ll have the time and energy to attract new clients.

Quality control of a product is easy. Typically, there is a set of standards to which the product must adhere, and if it does so, it meets the quality standards. Simple. The quality of a service is a little harder to define. For a start, a service doesn’t exist until you provide it. The client’s perception of that service is the only real measurement. You need that feedback to be able to ascertain the quality of your service, and how you can apply it to the next opportunity.

Your challenge is to create a distinctive level of service. Don’t aspire to be like the others — you’re better than them!

Dealing with Complaints

Now, your natural reaction might be to blow off complaints. You might feel defensive, maybe even hurt, when a client you like complains. You’ll probably feel that the complaint is an unjustified slight on you personally.

Get over it! Any complaint from a client is a 100% bona fide, major issue for them. Their perception is your reality. They have a problem; you have to fix it. Don’t belittle it or treat it as inconsequential: treat the complaint and the complainant as they deserve.

The fact that your feelings are hurt doesn’t matter. These are aggrieved clients — whether or not you agree with them is irrelevant. What you need to do to ensure your business survival is to deal with the complaint quickly and in the very best of humor. After all, they’re doing you a favor, indirect though it is — they’re giving you a chance to rectify the situation before they go off and tell 1,200 people about it, and they’re presenting you with a tool for the continuous improvement of your business!

Covering the Complaints Checklist

So your client has a complaint? Fantastic! Here’s how to deal with complaining clients:

Reward clients for complaining.
Listen to the complaints: “Please tell me exactly how we are failing you.” Find out how the clients want it fixed: “Now, how can we make things right?”

Thank them.
“Thanks for bringing this problem to our attention. We appreciate this very much, because we’re committed to providing the best widgets possible.”

“I’m sorry that the quality of the widgets has not been to our usual standard.”

Offer a solution.
“How would you feel if we delivered free replacement widgets immediately? We will, of course, also refund the full purchase price of the widgets. Is that acceptable to you?”

Get their agreement.
“Good, I’m so glad we can resolve this for you. I’ll have them delivered to your business within the hour.”

Fix the problem.
Deliver the widgets, and refund, within the hour.

Follow up.
“I’m calling to make sure that the widgets arrived and that they are the correct size. Are you happy with the way we’ve handled this problem?”

As you might notice, the client’s problem is fixed, and they receive the benefit of free widgets for complaining. It’s the old rule of delighting your customer: don’t do what you say you will, do more! Here’s one of my own experiences of a customer complaint, and our resolution of it:

Example 12.1. Complaint Resolution
My last complaint was from the client who’d asked us to register a domain name. The domain name was registered, and everything was fine … until he complained! His complaint was that, although he’d received the invoice and all the technical details about his new domain name, he’d received nothing to prove that we’d actually registered the name.

As you might know, the only official verification that the domain name has been registered comes in the form of a confirmation email from the registrar, although you can always check the registrar’s records. However, my client wanted something we don’t normally provide. He wanted us to confirm that we had registered the domain name, and that we had registered it in his name. By following the steps above, it was easy to fix.

We followed the first three steps, and then offered the client several solution options to best meet his needs. Did he want:

  • A copy of the confirmation of registration email?
  • A copy of the registrar’s record of registration?
  • A signed letter from us confirming the registration?
  • A signed certificate from us confirming domain name ownership?
  • Something else that we hadn’t considered?

Interestingly, the client opted for the signed certificate from us as proof of the domain name registration.

We designed a certification using Microsoft Publisher, printed it off, signed it, put it in a frame, and sent it to him. The client was very pleased to receive a nicely framed certificate of domain name ownership.

Now, thanks to this client, we realized that clients might need reassurance that we have actually registered their domain: we simply hadn’t thought of that before. We now provide this as an optional means by which we can advise them that their domain has been registered. Believe it or not, that easily obtained certificate provides our business with a point of differentiation.

Key Points

  • Don’t take complaints personally or be defensive.
  • Thank the complainant, apologize, offer a solution, get their agreement to the solution, and fix the problem.
  • Follow up to make sure that the complainant is happy with the resolution.
  • Use complaints as ideas to improve your business.
Asking for Complaints

If you sit and wait for complaints to come in, you’re like almost every other business. As we know, most businesses fail. Don’t do what they do; do something different.

The impact that dissatisfied clients can have on your business can be devastating. You need to seek out and deal with every dissatisfied client. Your potential for success will increase with every complaint you can find!

We know that just 4% of dissatisfied customers actually complain. Now, that figure obviously varies according to the research you read, but the point is that not many dissatisfied clients complain. They just go elsewhere without telling you. So, ask for complaints — you need them.

Asking for complaints is better than responding to complaints only after some gutsy clients get up the nerve to voice their issues. When you finish a project for your clients, have a meeting with them. Tell them you’ve been thrilled to have their business, and that you’re working very hard to build a business with the highest level of client service possible. Then ask:

  • “How did we do?”
  • “How could we have done better?”
  • “If you were me, what else would you have done?”

Don’t just ask, “Are you happy with everything?” Ask specifically for a complaint: “Luis, we strive to provide the absolute best service we can. Can you think of any particular instance when you’ve thought an area of our service hasn’t been absolutely satisfactory? I’d love to know how we haven’t been perfect for you, because I want to make it right. We’re trying to build a decent business here and this sort of feedback helps us to provide the absolute best in client service.” And ask it like you mean it!

Here’s the text of a poster we’ve used to elicit complaints from some of our clients. Try it out and see what reaction you elicit:

Example 12.2. A Poster that Just Asks for Complaints

Thanks for your business!

We want everything to go perfectly … but we know sometimes it doesn’t.

If something wasn’t right, please let us know.

Call us at 555-5555 so we can make it right straight away.

Many businesses have customer service departments to deal with complaints, but that’s not good enough — only 4% of people complain. You’ve got to relentlessly dig up every complaint about your business that you can find. Only then will you be able to fix the things that are holding you back from greater business success.

Get out there and ask.

Saying Sorry

When do you say sorry? Whenever you should.

Let’s assume that you’ve redirected your client’s emails to the wrong email address, and the client rings you with the bad news. Do you say, “Well, there appear to have been some technical issues affecting the redirect. I’ve fixed them now and there shouldn’t be any more problems.” Or do you confess, “Thanks for letting me know. I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve made an awful mistake and redirected your emails to the wrong address. It is my fault entirely. I’ll fix it immediately. Is that okay with you?”

Clients usually know intuitively when you’re trying to fool them, and they won’t tolerate it. Do it once, and you just might get away with it. Do it twice, and you’re gone.

A trend that’s becoming all too widespread in business today is the philosophy of never saying sorry. The theory seems to be that to apologize is to admit liability, and being found liable can lead to problems. However, most clients I’ve come across aren’t out to bring your business to its knees. They, like you, are only human; they understand mistakes and they’ll forgive your errors. If you fouled up, admit it, apologize sincerely, fix it, and move on.

Your honesty, integrity, and reputation are your three main assets. Once you’ve lost them, they’re gone forever.

Telling a Client they’re Wrong

There will be times when your clients will be confused, completely bamboozled, mistaken, or just plain wrong!

So, what do you say to clients who believe they are 100% right, when they’re obviously wrong? You tell them they’re wrong! Do it with tact, do it with care — but tell them. Don’t lie and tell them they’re right, just because they’re the customer. We had a client recently who wanted his web site edited. He gave me the site’s domain name, but when I checked, it wasn’t there. I went back to my client — he insisted that the domain name was correct, and that the site had been at that domain for five years. He also told me that the he’d never visited the site before. I checked again and again. I checked .com, .net, .org, .tv. I did searches, I sent emails, but I couldn’t find that site. I finally confirmed that the domain name had never been registered and was, in fact, available for registration. I rang the client and faxed him through the confirmation that the name had never been registered. The client still insisted that I was wrong. “I don’t know what you’ve done with the domain name!” he cried.

Now, while it’s fine to tell the client tactfully that they’re wrong, never, ever argue with them. They’re a precious part of your business. That’s why I didn’t say, “No, you’re wrong and I’m right. That isn’t the domain name, and that’s all there is to it. You’re wrong!” Instead, I phrased it more gently: “It doesn’t appear that this site is currently registered — here’s the documentation to back that up. Our next options are this, this, and this.”

I eventually managed to convince my client, with the assistance of documentation, that the domain name was not, and had never been, registered. Yes, I did tell him he was wrong, but only in the nicest possible way.

Taking the Blame

One of our web businesses experienced a very large increase in orders over a two-week period. Our manufacturer couldn’t keep up with demand and we had delays of almost a month in filling orders. However, by the time we were finished with our crisis management, not one person had become upset. Not one person canceled an order. Not one person complained. Hundreds wrote and thanked us. Our simple strategy was this: we wrote an email to our customers, all 1,000 of them. We told them that since we’d made the mistake of underestimating the huge demand, we did not have enough stock to fill their orders immediately. The estimated time of arrival for their product was one month. We apologized for the delay and we took full responsibility for it.

Take full responsibility — problems aren’t the client’s fault.

Our message was not, “Due to huge demand our manufacturer has been unable to supply us,” but instead a sincere, “Wow! We certainly didn’t anticipate the response to our marketing strategy that we’ve had. It’s completely our fault that we don’t have enough stock … we’re sorry.” We told them that we’d understand if they wanted to cancel their orders, as we hadn’t met our part of the bargain, but at the same time, we urged them to wait, and we’d ship their product as soon as possible.

Incredibly, the only responses we received were positive messages saying, “Thanks for keeping us informed!” It was unbelievable; I expected quite a few irate messages, but we didn’t receive a single one. We then emailed the waiting customers an update every week. Again, more emails of thanks flooded in. When we finally shipped out, every customer received a small gift, along with a personalized letter of apology.

What looked like a disaster turned out to be a triumph, of sorts. We maintained close contact with the customers, developed the perception that we were trustworthy and ethical, and we even eventually exceeded customers’ expectations with the gift. I’d guess that the 1,000 customers we kept waiting for a month would have higher repurchase rates than those of the customers we served immediately. Our research shows that clients who complain, and whose complaints are satisfactorily resolved, are more loyal than those who never had a problem! As we’ve discussed, this effect is related to the perceived risk of dealing with you. Treat clients with respect and reason, and you’ll receive the same treatment in return.

Now, obviously products are different from services, and the contracting of web development services is different to my online store’s fulfillment problem.

Failing to Satisfy Clients with your Design

A web site is different from any other product — it’s a very subjective item.

What if your client complains about the design of the site? Surely, being the hot designer that you are, you’re much better qualified to judge what’s best. Right?

Wrong. There’s no such thing as good web site design: it is subjective. Depending on what side of the fence you’re on, the design can look great or it can look like garbage. Whose fault is it if you do a wonderful design and the client complains about it? It’s yours. You should have educated the client every step of the way and made the design a consultative process. This is the very same reason why your guarantee should never be called in. If you closely consult with your clients and keep them fully educated about the whys and wherefores of the design, then you will have happy clients.

In short, if you don’t pay attention to your clients, they have excellent grounds for complaint.

Dealing with the Client on the War Path

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s quite an art form to identify what prospects will be like to deal with as clients. We want to work with people in a cooperative and receptive way so that we can provide them with the best care. Imagine a scenario where a client become very aggressive and adversarial. What then?

Over the years, I’ve dealt with grumpy clients, upset clients, and very irate and aggressive clients. I’ve dealt with them in different situations and in different ways, mostly defusing the situation and resolving the issue. However, we simply won’t deal with people who are abusive. We just tell those clients, “Your behavior is inappropriate and I refuse to enter any dialogue concerning these issues. I will send you a refund check tomorrow. Goodbye.”

I’ve seen the destructive impact that a very aggressive client can have. It’s all negativity, lost focus, and apprehension. The relationship might go on, but the rules have changed and you’re not working in a partnership anymore. It’s usually an uncomfortable, touchy, and anxious period. Negative people suck the energy out of you and your team and you’ll start going backwards very quickly, as we saw in Chapter 11, Dealing with Pesky Clients. You want to work with great people who pay well — don’t accept anything less. This may not be the right strategy for everyone, but it’s certainly the right strategy for me at this point in my business.

Indeed, business is about making money, and defusing aggressive clients so you can continue the business relationship can be a good way to maximize your income. However, there’s more to my business than just money. I want my business to be about cooperation, not confrontation. I want it to be mutually beneficial for my clients and myself. I want my team to enjoy their work. I can’t meet any of these goals if I have abusive clients.

If clients become aggressive, shouting and swearing, and they’re no longer listening to you or behaving professionally, then it’s time to make a decision. Do you want to work with these people? I would say no, not just due to the deteriorated relationship, but because you deserve to expect a level of professionalism. Common decency should be inherent in all our relationships, to help us grow our businesses and grow as people.

It’s been my experience that abusive clients just aren’t worth the time and hassle it takes to deal with them. Cut them loose and move on. It will be a short-term pain for a long-term gain.

Key Points

  • Don’t hesitate to apologize, do it sincerely, and protect your business’s integrity, and reputation by going the extra mile to resolve the problem.
  • When clients are wrong, break it to them gently.
  • Closely consult with clients when developing a subjective item such as a web site, and educate them as to its value.
  • Don’t tolerate clients who become abusive and can’t be managed professionally — cut them loose.

You will make mistakes in your business — that you can be sure of. You will receive complaints, and that’s another truth you can be sure of.

Don’t look upon complaints as negative or destructive. Embrace every complaint and treat it for what it is — a fantastic opportunity to build your business. Treat with care every person who complains, deal with their issues swiftly and with good sense, and you’ll have a client — and an advocate — for life. That person who complains about you is the very same person who will be soon be singing your praises — if you deal appropriately with their problem.

Due to their incredible worth, you must actively seek out complaints. In this chapter, we’ve discussed the amazing value of complaints, and we’ve seen how responding with a positive, effective solution can inspire client loyalty. We also understand that effective complaints handling is like winning a new client, and increases your referral business. Download this chapter and keep it handy as you build relationships with — and ask for, and respond to complaints from — your clients. It’ll prove to be a very handy guide. And don’t forget to check out the full table of contents from The Web Design Business Kit 2.0 for more information on what the kit covers.

Make your business the distinctive and dynamic enterprise it can be. Go out on a limb, push the boundaries, and create something great. You can do it. Grab a big advantage by treating those complaining clients like the wonderfully open, honest, and useful people they are!