The Nicest Customer Service Complaint of All

September 10, 2012

Once in awhile a customer service issue from my retail business will get elevated to my desk, and the customer involved will be a fellow business owner.

Often these business owners will let me know early in the conversation that they too own a business. And while every person who mentions this does so for one reason — to establish credibility — how they attempt to use this credibility differs greatly.

The first group uses their credibility as a cudgel, an attempt to establish expertise and to diminish our performance beyond the actual bounds of the issue. Regardless of what these customers want in the way of compensation, they almost always want to tell me how to run my business and to feel superior

The challenge, of course, is that these customers are almost always clueless about the nature of our business and the service expectations that are realistic for our business model. Any credibility they might have gained regarding their “advice” from letting me know they own a business is almost always undercut by the “advice” itself.

Fortunately, these fellow business owners are the minority.

The Nicest Complaints of All

The second group follows an approach that I find incredibly valuable and rewarding as a business owner.

It occurs when a business owner calls and says something to the effect of…

Look, I am a business owner too. I’m not looking to get anything, I just wanted to let you know about my experience so you will know what is going on in your store.”

It is hard to describe how much I appreciate these calls. First, by letting you know up front that they don’t want anything, they have established the ultimate credibility — that they only want to help.

Sure, they want to be heard (which they are) and to feel like someone cares about their experience (which I do), but by saying they are not looking for a refund or a upgrade, they have established a powerful credibility, the lack of an ulterior motive for their call.

This instantly gives credence to both their assessment of the problem and their veracity regarding the facts of the experience.

Such an approach opens up the conversation to a different dynamic, one where I am still working to improve their experience and keep their business, and also one in which we are openly discussing the nature of the issue and perhaps the root causes that enabled it to occur.

Of course, I will often offer them something anyway. If the situation has gotten to my desk, it was probably a pretty bad experience. However, the relevant point is that they are not asking.

Feedback from fellow business owners has opened my eyes to a number of problems with procedures, with performance, and with personnel that I was able to further research and address, making positive changes that affected future customer experiences.

Now, let’s be clear. Anyone who takes customer service seriously should value all feedback. I do not care whether the customer owns a business, works in corporate America or is retired — all complaints are valuable.

That being said, I simply love it when a fellow business owner calls to critique our service. Sure, I don’t relish the fact that we dropped the ball in the first place, but I love the conversations that have resulted from these calls.

Fellow business owners have a unique perspective on the challenging constraints placed on small businesses in today’s America. They understand the tradeoffs small business owners have to make every day to create a profitable enterprise with a sustainable business model.

These fellow owners have made an impact on me. The more of these calls I have fielded, the more I have been inspired to pay it forward and to make time when possible to tell fellow business owners of an exceptional experience, good or bad, so they too can benefit from someone who “just wants them to know.”

Every complaint is a gift, to paraphrase Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller, but to my mind, the selfless complaint — made owner to owner — is the nicest complaint of all.

14 thoughts on “The Nicest Customer Service Complaint of All”

  1. Of course, as soon as they say they don’t want anything………..they really do….:).

    I have been fired before and never knew why until later. I thought maybe the customer was indifferent and it was easy to treat us just like any other vendor only to find out later, they had some specific issues. Yes, I want to hear the good and the bad.

    Some of these business lessons are a hard pill to swallow but almost always a valuable teaching experience.

    The other key is being accessible if someone needs to get to you to express their concerns; don’t be afraid to pick up the phone.

    That’s all I have; see you next Monday.

    1. PS – I think I want the ‘new’ Kindle; I’ll send the one I have back to you so you can hook me up with the new one. I’m pretty sure that’s what you meant to do in the first place, right?

    2. No doubt, I’d much rather hear about it than have them disappear in silence. Even if you can’t save the customer, it’s better to know why so you can grow your organization and do better the next time.

      Next Monday… does that mean I don’t have to post on Thursday? 🙂

  2. Bill, we often let business owners know of a poor experience, and really DON’T want anything! We do it simply because we would hope others would do the same for us. It’s that old principle “Love your neighbor as yourself” I’m thinking of. Simply practicing The Golden Rule.

    Recent Story to Illustrate: A family member of ours has a landscaper she’s been very pleased with for quite some time. He mows the lawn, whacks the weeds, rakes the leaves, and plows her driveway when it snows. As his little one-man business has grown, he’s hired some young college-aged guys who are not doing nearly the same great job he’s always done himself.

    She complained to Scott about it, and said she was going to just “cancel her contract” and hire someone else.

    Scott asked her if she’d let the business owner know what was going on. She hadn’t. As a business owner himself, Scott implored her to please contact the landscaper and express her dissatisfaction. After all, he said, she’d always loved his work, and she at least owed him the opportunity to make it right or to make needed changes to his training or his staff.

    So the family member sent the landscaper an email and told him she wasn’t happy with the work anymore, and why. Grateful, the landscaper thanked her, and promised to speak to his crew.

    The next week, a new team showed up. They did a better job, but still not to the standards this family member had enjoyed for so long. She called Scott and told him, “I’m just going to forget it and find someone else.” Scott explained to her how important it is to a business owner to know why a customer is moving on, and to please let the landscaper know she still wasn’t happy. After all, he said, this guy is trying to grow his business, and these are growing pains. Every customer lost will hurt this guy’s business, and how will he know what’s wrong unless customers tell him?

    So the family member emailed the landscaper again. This time, the landscaper, very grateful, went out to her house to see what his last team had done — and he was not happy at all. He thanked our family member, and said that from now on, HE would be her landscaper HIMSELF, because he valued her business.

    This weekend, she told us she’d received an invoice from him that said “No Charge” for the shoddy work that had been done the previous two times. She told us, “I’m paying it anyway. He deserves it. And who knows? That’ll probably benefit me in the future anyway.”

    Now that’s a valuable lesson for both customer AND business owner!

    1. Wow, Michelle! I really appreciate the time you took to share that story. And that story says it all.

      I am as guilty as anyone of just walking away without saying anything. Generally, it is a feeling of being so time-crunched that I don’t want to double down on a bad experience. However, as I mentioned in the post, I have been inspired to be better and to try to make the time when I can, because as your story shows, taking the time to share what was wrong enabled a small business owner who did care about your family member’s business to make it right.

      Kudos to Scott for pushing the second (and third) chance. That landscaper should have offered Scott some free landscaping, not just your family member!

      Great story Michelle — thanks so much!!!

      1. You know, Adam, she DID state in her last email that Scott is a business owner and had advised her out of empathy for the landscaper — and she told him the name of the business! Maybe we’ll end up hearing from him!

        We’ve hired a few teens in our neighborhood, though, so we can invest into their lives. Scott’s teaching them how to grow their own landscaping business, how to negotiate, how to provide great service, etc.. It’s been fun to listen in! Now they’re competing with one another for our business! Isn’t that cool?

  3. Now I don’t feel so bad at restaurants! 🙂

    I was in the restaurant world for several years so whenever I go out to eat now, I pick up on things the rest of my dining party barely notice. Usually, I make a point to let the manager know what they did great, what caught my eye, etc. Managers typically love it since they can’t be everywhere at once. I know I loved it when customers talked with me when eating in my restaurants.

    Now if only every complaint could be as nice.

    1. Chase, Scott and I both worked in the restaurant business, too (once in the same restaurant), and know exactly what you mean! I have a question for you, then: do you find that you expect much better service than what your fellow diners do? How about food quality?

      Actually Adam, I’ll ask the same question to you re: customer service! Do you have much higher standards now, and expect much more?

      1. You know Michelle, I am actually surprisingly unfazed by average service or missteps. Coming from a retail environment, I know how hard it is to execute consistently. Of course, I see all of the opportunities for improvement, but my expectations aren’t super high. Part of that is also cynicism, I guess, I just don’t expect to be WOWed by service that often.

        Of course, my expectations do, like many, adjust to the environment. I went to a fine dining restaurant for a celebration recently. It was one of those where they take the water bottle and put it in an ice carafe near the table. It’s a great service if the wait staff is aware and makes sure to refill your glass promptly. However, if they are not on top of it, then it actually makes a “premium” service worse than the standard service. Point being, in that environment, my expectations are pretty high.

    2. I have family and friends that worked in F&B and owned restaurants. They notice everything.

      That’s great that you take the time to share your feedback. One thing, I have always tried to do is to share exceptional service from a waiter/waitress with management. I know I love receiving specific feedback on team members.

      Thanks Chase!

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