All companies make mistakes, but how you handle them is what separates the men from the boys. Recently I had an experience with the company that services my home HVAC system that is prompting me to do this posting. This company has been to our home six times in the last two weeks and still hasn't fixed the furnace that heats the addition to our house. Luckily, the main part of the house has heat but our kitchen addition hasn't had heat for two weeks, including through the Christmas holidays. The problem is quite serious in that the furnace was malfunctioning and spewing carbon monoxide into our house. Luckily, or shall I say smartly, we have a carbon monoxide detector that went off in the middle of the night and alerted us to this situation. If it were not for that we might all have died in our sleep. If you don't have a carbon monoxide detector, get one.

As this problem has continued to go unresolved, I have gotten more and more frustrated with this company. (By the way we have had a service contract with this company for over 20 years. However, once this problem is fixed we will definitely be switching to another provider.) This episode is replete with broken promises, no shows for appointments, unreturned phone calls, calls dropped when calling in to inquire about what's going on and, worst of all, a dispatcher who keeps interrupting me every time I call and who threatened to hang up on me when I asked her to stop interrupting. I am not exaggerating, this has been a nightmare.

So, how should you handle complaints? Below is what I have learned over the years:

  • First, when a customer calls with complaints listen. Don't interrupt, let the customer completely vent. Then ask, "Is there anything else I should know about this situation before I respond?"
  • The next step is to immediately apologize for the incident and ask the customer what he or she would like you to do. Most times the customer just wants to vent and they don't want anything. However, many times the customer will tell you what they want. If it is within reason, agree to the request immediately.
  • If the customer asks for little or nothing, I still insist on giving them a credit so that I will exceed their expectations regarding the incident. Henry Kaiser, an early 20th century industrialist once said that, "Problems are opportunities in work clothes." View every problem or complaint as an opportunity to make a customer for life, not something to dread. I find that when you exceed a customers' expectations when they have a complaint, you not only solve the problem, but you create a loyal customer who will recommend you to others.
  • Once the issue has been resolved make sure that someone calls the customer a week or so later to ask if the problem is still fixed or if any further follow-up is needed. When you do this, you, once again, stand out as a company giving outstanding service. So few companies give outstanding service these days that even mediocre service stands out compared to the lousy service that most people get.
  • Another thing to remember is, "No one ever won an argument with a customer". No matter how outrageous the customer is being, do not argue with the customer. Years ago, I heard the legendary motivational speaker and sales trainer, Zig Ziglar, say, "The next time you're tempted to tell a customer off, remember that you can feed your ego or you can feed your family, you can't feed them both."

In my next post, I will talk about how to effectively complain when you have a problem. Until then, if you have any other tips on how your company handles complaints, I look forward to hearing them.
Jim Sobeck is president of New South Construction Supply, West Columbia, S.C. This article originally was posted on Sobeck's Biz 101 blog. Copyright 2011 by Jim Sobeck. All rights reserved. This information may be reproduced as long as full credit is given to the author.