Don’t let complaints escalate - deal with them swiftly from the front line

Recently I bought a new printer for my home computer. I chose Hewlett Packard because I knew their quality was good.

As it happened, there was a £100 cashback promotion on at the time. I got my printer and claimed my £100. They asked for a ridiculous amount of paperwork, but I provided it.

Weeks later when I chased it up, they claimed my paperwork had been late and refused to part with the £100. All subsequent letters have been ignored.

Meanwhile the printer broke down. Three calls to HP, routed to a foreign call centre, totalling 2.5 hours, produced no tangible result. A call to Amazon, who supplied the printer, on the other hand, produced immediate action and I had a new printer in three days.

My point here is about how customer dissatisfaction is handled. If my printer had broken down and HP had dealt with it promptly, I would have reckoned that these things happen and forgotten the matter in days.

If there had never been a cashback promotion, or the printer had been £100 more expensive, I’d still have bought it. Now, however, I would do my best to talk anyone out of ever buying an HP item again - but I’m full of praise for Amazon.

Over the years, I have had my fair share of customer complaints. Of the letters, calls and emails that come straight to me, I would say 90% have been provoked by poor handling of the original complaint.

Customers rarely write to the chairman because they bought a substandard product, or they aren’t happy with a promotion. But they certainly do write when they bring that complaint to a store and are treated with disbelief, rudeness or suspicion.

Being rebuffed as mistaken, foolish, dishonest or merely inconvenient when you have a complaint is likely to incense even the mildest-mannered customer.

Apart from filling your chairman’s in-tray, it turns them into big-time negative advertisers of your brand. They say word of mouth has priceless marketing value - well, this kind of word of mouth has even greater destructive power.

So when I see retailers have invested millions in head office complaint systems and customer care centres, my sense is that they are creating something that will often intervene too late.

Where investment, relentless training and close monitoring are really needed is at the front line - in stores, where most customers first bring complaints.

On the positive side, there is also opportunity. Retailers often talk about exceeding customers’ expectations. This is a key moment for doing just that, to very good effect.

In my experience, a customer who gets more than they were looking for in response to a complaint will become a confirmed fan of your business. It isn’t usually difficult, as in this country expectations for the success of a complaint are very low. But don’t wait until the complaint reaches the higher echelons of your business - do it at first contact.

Simon Burke is chairman of Majestic Wine and Superquinn