by William and Mary Weaver
Customer complaints can be a real pain for management and employees to deal with. Does a method exist that effectively handles complaints? Yes it does, according to Ann Lofgren, Senior Trainer for the Zingerman family of companies in Ann Arbor, MI. Her words are given extra weight because Zingerman’s has achieved widespread recognition for its excellence in customer service, and for the sustained growth of its various customer-oriented businesses.
Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig, co-founding partners of Zingerman’s community of businesses, developed an interesting and very effective method of dealing with complaints that can turn your customers from feeling angry to feeling that they are in collaboration with your company.
“We want lifelong customers. If we handle complaints well, we’ll make their day, and that will make our day, too. We want to make complaining easy. If customers don’t complain to us, they’ll complain to their friends,” and as every business owner knows, the repercussions could be ongoing.
In handling complaints, Zingerman’s companies want all their employees to follow five simple steps.
First, acknowledge the problem and really listen to the customer, making eye contact and nodding. “Ninety percent of the time, the thing customers want most is to be heard.” Most customers are not looking for compensation, and they’re definitely not looking for excuses.
Second: apologize. Let the customer know you understand what they’re saying, and you’re sorry the problem happened. Don’t try to blame anyone or anything. The customer doesn’t care how or why the problem happened, or whose fault it was. Instead, use your time more productively (from a problem-solving point of view), to listen and to apologize.
Third: make it right. “The customer is not always right, but we always have to make things right for them. They need to be right.” That’s Zingerman’s customer service policy.
Making things right is most effective. Lofgren and her colleagues at ZingTrain believe that if the person who has gathered up the courage to complain (and it does take courage. It’s much easier just to go away mad), he or she shouldn’t have to go through a whole string of people to get the problem corrected. “It’s best if the person who first hears about the problem goes ahead and corrects it right away, not an hour later.
“Our staff at Zingerman’s is empowered from day one to fix problems and make things right. We don’t have to get a manager’s approval. For example, if a table of guests are upset because they waited 25 minutes more than they were supposed to, I as the employee hearing the complaint, have every right to go to management and say, ‘We’re buying their meal tonight.’ We have that power. The guests can see that we’re empowered to help them and that we care enough to do it,” explains a host at Zingerman’s Roadhouse restaurant.
Fourth, thank the guest for bringing the matter to your attention. If you don’t know something is wrong, you can’t fix it. The guest becomes a collaborator in improving overall customer service. “Customers are frequently taken aback when we make it right and then thank them,” noted Lofgren. Thanking complaining customers may go against the grain with some people. “But think about how much effort and how much nerve it takes to complain about something. Most people would rather not upset anyone — and then we wouldn’t know, and we could lose a customer for life.”
Fifth, document the situation, so you can spot trends in the business. Also track any follow up needed by a partner or manager. “This helps us go the second mile: customer service above and beyond what you’d expect from any other company. This is what we want to be known for. Our Code Red forms contain all the information you need to record the complaint: the date, the nature of the problem, why the problem happened, what you did to fix it, and how you followed up.”
These simple steps to use in responding to a complaint work in all sorts of situations and businesses. “If you’re a human being working with other human beings, this recipe should work for you. It works so well for us that part of our training of new employees is those five steps to follow in response to a customer’s complaint.”
For most businesses, it’s helpful to have a definite system that all employees are taught to use when handling a complaint. “At Zingerman’s, we put no limits on ‘making it right,’ but we do train our staff to take baby steps. We don’t do ‘food for life,’ for example.”
Making it right can be a little more difficult if your business is in landscaping, or you operate a garden center, for example, instead of a food business. You could, perhaps, try empowering your employees to do anything up to a cost of $50. For anything over that, they would need to get a manager’s approval.
Document Customer’s Suggestions
“We also document customer’s suggestions. If some says, ‘I wish you guys would ….’, we write it down.” This doesn’t mean you are necessarily going to follow every suggestion, but by documenting suggestions, you get a good idea of what is on our customers’ minds.
When several customers, for example, wished the deli would open a half hour earlier, or stay open later, Zingerman’s staff gave the idea some thought. “That’s how we came to adopt our 55:05 rule. If the deli officially opens at 11:00, we actually have the doors open at 10:55, and if we officially close at 10:00, we don’t actually shut the doors until 10:05. People really do appreciate that, and come to depend on it.”
The natural tendency is to focus most on the customers who make us angry — probably only about one in 20. It’s important to focus also on quieter customers’ disappointments, even if they don’t bring product back. If ten customers calmly and politely comment that they’re sorry we were out of mozzarella when they came to shop, document that. It represents a lot of money in lost sales.
by William and Mary Weaver