What Are Customer Complaints? They’re Gifts

October 8, 2012

I mentioned authors Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller in a post a few weeks back entitled The Nicest Customer Service Complaint of All. Barlow and Moller are the authors of the popular customer service book called A Complaint Is A Gift.

In some ways, the title says it all.

A Complaint Is a Gift flips the traditional approach to complaints, viewing them not as hassles but as gifts that organizations should welcome. As the authors point out, our organizations can gain from complaints in many ways, including understanding what is important to our customers and getting ideas for improvements or new products/services.

This is a concept I absolutely love!

What Are Customer Complaints?

In the book, the authors offer this explanation:

“In simplest terms, complaints are statements about expectations that have not been met. They are also, and perhaps more importantly, opportunities for an organization to reconnect with customers by fixing a service or product breakdown. In this way, complaints are gifts customer give to businesses. Everyone will benefit from carefully opening these packages and seeing what is inside.” *

Sure, Adam, that sounds great in a blog post, but let’s be real, complaints… well, they suck.

And that is the essence of the challenge.

Inherent in most complaints is the accusation that either our organization or, more often, the person representing our organization, has failed the customer. No one likes to be told they are not doing a good job, and the natural tendency is to view complaints from an unreceptive and even distrusting frame.

However, how an organization views complaints is a fairly strong indication of how they will handle complaints.

What Are Customer Complaints? | A Complaint Is a Gift Book Cover

Are complaints annoyances? Are they part of the cost of doing business? Or are they gifts?

If a complaint is treated as a gift, team members are more likely to approach the complaint with a constructive and sincere attitude.

One of the first challenges of reactive customer service is to get team members to control the defensiveness that is the natural reaction for most humans when confronted with anger or an accusation. Reframing how our teams view complaints is an important part of overriding this common reaction.

Customer Silence In Not Golden, Complaints Are

The most important point about complaints is that they are an opportunity. Complaints are gifts because they are not silence. Silent attrition, when customers leave but never say a word to the company, is a huge issue in many businesses. According to Andrea J. Ayers of Convergys, companies, as an average across industries, lose 12% to silent attrition. In the credit card industry, the number is 43%! cite

A complaint is an opportunity to bond, to learn, and to recover. It is an opportunity that silence does not provide.

Techniques for handling complaints are not a secret. The authors address an 8-Step Gift Process in the book, and it is fairly standard customer service advice.

The magic is not found in a secret formula for handling complaints but in changing the attitude of our organizations. The opportunity is in helping our teams readjust how they perceive and receive complaints, helping them to understand that a complaint is not a problem to be dealt with but a gift to be embraced.

How does your organization view complaints?

* Barlow and Moller. A Complaint Is a Gift. Digital edition. 2008. Page 75.

113 thoughts on “What Are Customer Complaints? They’re Gifts”

  1. So very true! I could not agree more with this whole post. I would much rather have a complaint than a client leave in silence and I never know what I or my team did to make that happen. Sure, sometimes things just happen. But for the most part, if we’re all doing our best to meet expectations and the expectations are clear for both parties, complaints should be minimal.

    “In simplest terms, complaints are statements about expectations that have not been met.”

    I recently had the most wonderful of complaints from a client. It was hard going through it, but it opened my eyes to what I had done that did not meet their expectations and to how I need to do a better job on the front end of client engagement of recognizing unrealistic expectations or when a client just isn’t a fit. In this case, they were gracious enough to write me a letter detailing how I had not met their expectations, along with their check. That was tough! But, like I said, it was a gift. I wrote them a sincere letter of appreciation and returned their check. If you’re not satisfied, you don’t pay. Simple as that.

    In this case, there wasn’t really the opportunity to make it better or meet the expectations. It was more a case of internal reflection for me and a better litmus test for clients that are a match for ADG and what we do. I still think it was the best gift I’ve received all year and keep the letter in my desk drawer where I can take it out from time to time to remember what is important and what isn’t.

    Great post, Adam! Thanks!

    1. Wow: handled with grace, professionalism and wisdom Erica. But then, I’d expect nothing less from you, my friend. The medicine can sometimes be tough to swallow, but it’s good for us…even when it tastes bitter. Cheers! Kaarina

      1. Awww, thanks, Kaarina! I did the only thing I could do…the optimal solution that I could live with and look back on with pride. I’m grateful that the letter was sent. It was a great lesson and truly a gift!

    2. Love the story Erica! And great to see you!

      I think viewing complaints as gifts is even more telling in a agency/client environment or a B2B environment when one customer can be such an important percentage of business. It extends, of course, to all business, but when a client could be 5 or 10% of revenue, we want to encourage as much dialogue (and if necessary as many complaints) as possible, because it is a lot better than them slinking off in silence.

      1. Good to see you too, Adam! Your blog is looking great and your content is spot on! 😉 Yes, you’re right, one client can be a significant portion of revenue. It can also be the wrong kind of client or revenue and situations like the one I experienced made that a very clear point for me. As a result, I no longer take on one month PR gigs; expectations are just too hard to manage or fulfill. Valuable lesson learned.

    3. They had to be Blue Devil fans because Tar Heels are too snooty to share their feelings. 😉

      A letter is great feedback, especially if the client is willing to discuss it with you. It provides some concrete “evidence” you can use to review your work and try to more accurately assess weak spots.

      1. Sorry to disappoint, Josh, but I’m a Tarheel through and through! Carolina blue blood flows here. 😉

        And yes, thank goodness for that letter. How gracious of the client to take the time to let me know!

    4. Erica,
      I know I am across town but I have to write this so that I do not forget. “A Complaint is a Gift” when it came out turned my world around. The writer is not the best keynote that I ever heard but she was and is the reason that I am still in innkeeping. Read the book. Diane

  2. Like many things in life, when we get defensive and expect a battle, nothing good can be gained from it. When customers complain, they’re providing valuable nuggets of information from which each person can gain. I haven’t read the book, but thanks for pointing us in that direction. Complaints are an opportunity to do it better next time.

    What say you #TeamBlogJack? Cheers! Kaarina

      1. Woohoo! I’m rallying the troops…or team. We’ll be voting on whether from henceforth on we will be #TeamBlogJack or #TroopBlogJack. Weigh in everyone! And mwahahahahahahahaha on the blogjack!

        1. I’m partial to #teamblogjack because I was there for the inaugural. (I might even have been the one to write it, but I’m not sure on that. Do you remember who said it?)

        2. Considering this whole entire thing, ahem, originated from somewhere in my corner, cough, cough…TEAM is my vote…but if someone has the time and wherewithall to tell me where to show up, then I’m all for whatever it’s gonna be…How About GroupBlogJack? Kinda like the flow of that. Or, BlogJackOver

          1. Hey there my #rockhot friend. We’re stickin’ with the one and only original #TeamBlogJack. Votes are in:) Now, are we up to creating a triberr #TeamBlogJack? Or are we all in one another’s tribes as it is? Jayme, Brian Meeks is looking to join a triberr group…perhaps yours?

          1. Adam, I’d love to be such a “victim” as well. Today is a day of many firsts for me: my first visit at your blog (though I have met you several times at Bill’s and I know all about your secrets, hehe) and my first time participating in a #TeamBlogJack. Happy to get to know other sides of you as well!

        1. So what’s your vote on the name? #TeamBlogJack (the original…but I’m not trying to influence you, even though Adam and I vote for that, haha!) or #TroopBlogJack? Weigh in please

          1. I like #TeamBlogJack, trooper reminds me of another song by ABBA, way way back or the army, not my favourite either. And I cannot be bribed, I have to let you know!

  3. This is my first visit to your blog. I really like the subject, as I have often held a company in higher regard after they’ve handled a complaint of mine, well. It is amazing how one feels when they’ve been taken from angry and disappointed to happy and satisfied.

    I’ve worked in positions where I had to handle complaints from very angry people and I don’t recall ever taking it personally. I never considered that to be an option and really just wanted to help the person feel better and resolve their situation.

    Often, the person complaining just wants to be listened to and even if the solution is easy, it is best not to interrupt. Wait until they are done and then let them know you have an idea, We could do x, would that solve the issue?

    By asking for their approval of the idea, they feel empowered, which is usually 180 degrees from where they felt before calling.

    Great customer service makes great companies…and makes for a great post. Well done.

    1. Glad to have you hear Brian! I’ve seen you around the playground here and there.

      Kudos to you for separating the complaint from yourself. Most people can be trained not to take complaints or anger personally, but it is definitely not the default reaction for the majority, which is one reason great customer service is so rare.

      You’re so right though, most of the time just listening is most of the battle!

    2. Absolutely, Brian, I agree with you on the personal experience level: I will forever recommend Kenwood (or was it Bamix?), when my handheld mixer gave out on me after a year of admittedly hard use, I sent it back to them with a very innocent question and they replied by sending a brand new one! Love them!

      But I have also learnt my lesson: when I have a complaint, I try to be as nice as possible, do not accuse the company of anything, well, in short, keep the emotional side out of it and ask them for their view of the problem and how they would like to solve it.

      And Kaarina and Adam will confirm it: listening is the most important thing and shows respect for the customer.

      1. Responding to your other comment Barbara, since it was already to many levels deep for a response. Glad to get o know you as well, and glad to have you hear for this auspicious occasion!

        I like your comment about being nice when complaining. Being in customer service can be very challenging. While it is our job to handle it, it is still nice when customers make the effort to be nice even when displeased.

  4. Great points Brian:) When I work with a client and their employees, one of the first issues we deal with is: “dealing with customer complaints” or “angry customers”. We do a lot of role-playing with various scenarios, emphasizing the need for employees to: a) take a breath and smile b) realize the angry/complaining customer wants to be heard – no interruptions, no trying to “solve” the problem…at least at first c) Ask “how can I make this right for you?” and allow the customer lead way to the resolution.

    As “customers” of this blog, I have no complaints! Now I’m looking for my #TeamBlogJack to continue to the convo. Cheers! Kaarina

  5. A happy subject after my own heart, #TeamBlogJack – err… I meant Adam! A major part of my corporate career was in Sales and of course, customer service was a critical aspect. We called our goal customer delight – and in turn, we were grateful when complaints were verbalized, because it meant an opportunity to make them happy. New recruits never understood this as they allowed their egos to come in the way of their thinking, but eventually, Training managed to cure them. (Xerox was reputed to have one of the most respected sales training programs)

    My goal was always to generate referrals, because early on in my career I realized I was not made for hardsell. I usually adopted a ‘consultancy’ role as I could never convince anyone about something I didn’t believe in, or knew wasn’t true. This may have lost me small battles, but I was lucky with the wars :-).

    It takes courage to handle customer complaints. Angry customers are like children. They must be pacified before they are woo-ed back.

    Great post, Adam. Good to be here. Thanks to Kaarina for the shoutout.

    I am on the verge of saying Hail #TeamBlogJack !

    1. You can definitely say hail #TeamBlogJack, and thanks for joining in. Not only is it our hope excellent comments and dialogue, but to have some fun along the way too:) To courage and #TeamBlogJack – ing:) Cheers! Kaarina

    2. I’m the same way, I don’t like hard selling, but I’m very comfortable with solving people’s problems. Sometimes the answer is that the product they’re looking it is NOT the right answer. The simple act of telling a customer today that they should look elsewhere, gives me the confidence to show how much I believe the product is the RIGHT answer for the next ten.

      Honesty can be very liberating.

      1. You know, Brian, that was the prime reason I survived in the same market with three different companies over several years. Funny thing is – an old customer would call for market advice – as though I was really their consultant. What a compliment that used to be! And there was nothing more enjoyable than sitting in on a rainy afternoon and collecting referrals 😀

        Yes – honesty is very rewarding!

    3. Hi Vidya, great to have you here, even as part of an invading #blogjack force! 🙂 I love your point about training, because it really is key to this issue. The “gift” analogy helps reframe how teams view complaints, and that is a great first step in getting people to depersonalize.

    4. I’ve not done a blogjacking before, but I think one of the points is to run amok a bit. I decided to take advantage of the Vidya Sury recently posted..Who Knew? and sneak out to read a blog I’ve never visited.

      It was AWESOME. The pictures were great and the writing delightful. Okay, that is all, back to the blogjacking.

      1. Bravo Brian! That’s the way a good ol’fashioned #TeamBlogJack should run. Lots of skipping in and out, levity, discovering new things and new people, bantering, ribbing and, oh yes…a little bit of seriousness thrown in for good measure;)

    5. Vidya, I saw you mentioned Xerox, have you ever worked for them? I was the only woman on their all men sales force, can you believe that? But it was lots of fun, especially when I was asked to teach them the basics of EDP and I was always one step ahead!

      1. Your post about prolonging the summer really filled me with a desire to travel.

        So, I think I’ll head out and do my laundry. Not quite the same thing, but it will have to do.

        1. Brian, haha, doing your laundry – shmaundry. Caught you eating a ribeye instead!
          And big thanks for your delightful comments and you are welcome anytime in that Tuscan villa as long as you do all our laundry!

  6. “Excuse me, will you get me the manager please; I have ‘gift’ for him.”

    The type of industry has an impact too. If it’s a min wage, McDonald’s type job some of these kids could give a flip.

    In my industry, more time can be taken on the front-end and doing a better job of hiring for culture. With a proper customer service model in place, it truly can make it a ‘win’ opportunity.

    1. I worked at McDonalds for many many years and you are right, most people don’t care. I always did, but it is just my nature to be friendly. I wanted the cheeseburgers to look like the ones in the commercials and the fries to make people want more.

      I think it comes down to one thing…I had good parents.

    2. You’ve got some really large accounts; I would definitely think it’s a gift whenever they are not silent about their displeasure. And you’re right, in some industries, it’s a challenge to find people to take this view.

  7. You are so right, Adam, it is a question of attitude. Great post!

    I remember from my days in sales that when we had to deal with a complaint all of a sudden everybody disappeared or tried to shove it off somewhat. How I wish I could go back and thank those customers for their trust in our company and for thinking that we were capable of meeting their expectations.

      1. I did, Kaarina, I was nearly kicked out after 6 months because I did not meet their expectations! HA! Just because I refused to hard sell and my boss only saw women in the light of staying at home wives and moms. But in the end I won all the competitions (sorry for the bragging)!

    1. Thanks for the comment Barbara. I think the authors mentioned in the book a similar point, which is that complaints (well, most) are an act of trust. The customer believes in the organization enough to give it a chance to fix the issue.

  8. You’re unfortunately right about the not giving a flip, Bill, but all the more reason we need business owners to instil a “speed of the leader, speed of the game”, caring, receptive model.

    It breaks my heart to see “kids” thrown into positions with lots of responsibility but no authority, little training in “customer service” and a bar set low in terms of expectation.

    Oh, and by the way…did your ‘gift’ arrive? I’m trying to roust up a good ol’fashioned #TeamBlogJack here, but it’s not yet working:(

    1. I’m here, I’m here! #TroopBlogJack

      Back to the topic of conversation, it’s hard to quell that defensive feeling. It’s important, though. You can learn a lot by being open to complaints or, as is more often the case with me, constructive criticism. It’s also worthwhile to learn to evaluate complaints and criticism. They are not all created equal.

      1. I do believe we’ll have to hold a vote Erin: #TeamBlogJack vs #TroopBlogJack. How shall we cast votes? And I dig the idea of a triber #TeamBlogJack that Brian Meeks suggested.

        What’s your vote?

          1. Here’s what you do…Brian…join Triberr and find a tribe you like and ask to join it. No sense waiting around for an invite! Or, you create your own tribe and then you have total control who’s in and who’s out.

      2. Constructive criticism? That’s awfully nice language. 🙂

        You know, I wrote this post about receiving complaints but there is a very rich topic on how to deliver complaints, and it would start with don’t complain — offer constructive criticism.

          1. Erin, I wasn’t able to reply above to your #TroopBlogJack comment. Don’t get me wrong: I think that’s a fine name too, and totally get the idea that we’re getting larger by the moment. But in tribute to Adam (who’s not sure if he named it originally, but I’m gonna’ credit him), glad you’re AOK with #TeamBlogJack. Now, if we could only find Jayme Soulati….conspicuous in her absence. She must be off playing…or working? Jayme, Jayme where are you? We need to talk about a triberr #TeamBlogJack!

  9. Kaarina, I am really glad that you as an old “customer” to Adam’s blog have no complaints, being a new “customer” to your blog, Adam, I rely on you supplying free samples to test out everything.

    Bill, you with the language skills, you know what “gift” means in German? I’d better watch out with my range of business then!

        1. I’ll review the ebook when I receive the cheque (note spelling)

          Just kidding. I will most definitely write a review from the Great White North, perhaps under the pseudonym Snowshoes. Are you listening Bill?

          Seriously: I haven’t yet tucked into your book but I look forward to both reading it and writing a post on it. Promise!

        1. Thanks Jayme: it was fun. I didn’t see your comment encouraging Brian to find a tribe before I responded to you. What do you think of a triberr #TeamBlogJack? Or are we already so intertwined among tribes that it would be redundant?

      1. Wow, what a party! Kaarina, you will get the cookies. Or, if you prefer single malt truffles, with the cold season back we need all comfort food we can get, no?

  10. Interesting that I see a Tar Heels / Blue Devils discussion going on in the comments – I’m getting ready to do a college road trip with my youngest daughter, and we are hitting UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, UVA and Georgetown. Might have to make a few vlogs of our experience 😉

    Regarding the complaints, I absolutely agree with the post…and I’m more than willing to tell people that complaints are customers opting-in for engagement with us. It not only gives us the opportunity to resolve their issues – versus losing the quiet customers – it helps us improve our products/services as well as the relationship with that particular customer.

    Having said that, I also come from the software development side. Any “creator” of solutions is a perfect candidate for falling in love with the very solutions we create. As a result, we can take quick offense when someone complains about “our baby”. It took years for me to shed that defensiveness and the “you are obviously doing it wrong” mentality.

    Back to college – Hook ‘Em (although we had a painful loss this weekend to WVU).

    #TeamBlogJack…umm, ok 😉

    1. Yay! You’ve now been drawn into the #TeamBlogJack world Brian. This is where we descend upon an unsuspecting blogger, post respectful relevant comments and then run a little amok with levity, “inside jokes” if applicable and fun and frivolity. You being a leader of #HecklersHangout with Margie, I’m sure you’ll appreciate the intent:) Great to see you here, and hope to catch up with you Thursday evening too:)

    2. Wait, I just offered up 2 more names! GroupBlogJack or BlogJackOver…maybe Kaarina is gonna do a survey Monkey as a top-secret assignment and we can have a real vote.

      1. No, no a thousand times no. I like our original #TeamBlogJack: it’s our origin, it’s our heart and soul. I love the aspect of Team…so if it’s OK with all (and we DID vote;), it’s #TeamBlogJack moving forward with gusto!

    3. Nice to see you hear Brian!

      “I’m more than willing to tell people that complaints are customers opting-in for engagement with us” That’s great way to phrase it, and you make a good point about creative enterprises — I think sometimes designers forget that they are designing for others not just for creative expression.

  11. In the spirit of BlogJacking, I’d like to bring up something completely unrelated.

    On July 15, a Korean group, PSY posted a video, “Gangham Style”. When it hit 300,000,000 views it was the all time most viewed video in the history of YouTube.

    Are you kidding me? After less than two months? It is in Korean!!!

    We live in a great age when a semi-popular artist in a country of 50 million people can take the world by storm, simply through the power of sharing. The video is over 400 million views now, with dozens of parodies that have multi-million views, too. My mom, who is 71 has heard of it.

    Okay, now back to your regularly scheduled blog post.

      1. Here I am with balloons and cake but alas you can’ see them. Very late to this #TBJ. Nicely done Adam.

  12. Great post! On my phone but wanted to weigh in quickly. I was told with the old school sales strategy of “objections to opportunities.” May be trite but I would rather know and have a chance to apologize and take action than have someone be unhappily silent.

    1. Thanks Rebecca! Good point. Sales and customer service are very much aligned in this area — finding the problem/objection and turning it into a win.

  13. Adam,

    Kinda late to the party here. I see cups on the floor, dishes everywhere, streamers, hats! Something good went on here. I know that.

    Love the post.

    Turning a complaint into an opportunity. What a great idea. I have seen my fair share of complaints and it takes a lot not to take it personally. When I think about it I would rather have that than silence which is what you may get if you simply fight back. Here’s to the golden opportunities, my friend!

    1. Well, at least you didn’t say empty bottles! Yes, Kaarina threw quit the bash here. I was just the guy in the funny hat waiting for a slice of cake.

      And I’m with you, hats off to golden opportunities!

      1. Well, I thought I should bring in the clean-up crew:) Hope you enjoyed the cake Adam, and the camaraderie and comments. Thanks everyone who took up the challenge to be part of this #TeamBlogJack. Let’s do it again sometime:)

        Great post: great site Adam. Cheers! Kaarina

  14. Totally agree with this premise, Adam! I think that complaints offer an incredible opportunity for businesses to shine. It gives you a chance to turn a complainer into a raging fan if you handle it right. The problem is that most companies retreat or fight back when they get complaints. Instead, if we can just be gracious, let the person be heard and make the situation right, it will go a LONG way.

  15. Hi Adam, this is an excellent article!

    If business owners can embrace the mindset you layout here, it could transform their businesses.

    Cheers to you, sir!

  16. Holy Blogjack Batman. Basketball and cookies and parties. Heh.

    This, this is why I get annoyed when social media gets cut up by department, all turf wars over who should ‘own’ it; it’s why I get annoyed when ‘delete, ignore negative feedback’ is part of the so-called strategy. “The magic is not found in a secret formula for handling complaints but in changing the attitude of our organizations.” There is opportunity here, to learn – this is free focus group, free research – if companies just realize it, change the way they think. And the magic formula, the secret weapon to me – then, now, always – communications. FWIW.

    1. Tell me about it Davina — #teamblogjack descended with a vengeance.

      It’s funny… what you say about social media getting chopped up is exactly what people have been saying for years about customer service. The customer experience transcends almost every part of the organization. Kill the silos, etc.

  17. Hi Adam

    Being out of the corporate world I don’t deal so much with complaints these days, although I’ve done plenty of role plays and complaint handling in my time!

    It’s hard not to feel or get defensive but that won’t ever get a resolution it will just deepen the complaint.

    On the flip side, I recently felt compelled to complain to Yahoo about something and all I kept getting back were automated responses. I finally got a response from a human yesterday only to be told, click on this link here and this might answer your question. This just made things worse! Not the way to do customer service and it was from their Customer Care department!

    1. Hey Tim, Defensiveness never works — that’s for sure. Completely unproductive, yet very natural.

      As for some of the big online services, I have had a number of challenges over the years as well. Most are not setup for human problem solving — and sometimes that is all that will work!

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