Go fishing for client complaints

By Bill Cates

Referral Coach


In this extended volatile market, the chances of having a client complain to you have increased. While I assume you work hard to make sure all your clients are happy with your service, things do fall through the cracks and some clients are inclined to blame you for the continued downturn in the market. When clients get nervous, many will notice your imperfections more clearly.

Encourage complaints

I believe that you should be doing everything you can to encourage your clients to complain. Now, you must think I'm nuts. What I mean is this: Some clients will complain to you about anything and everything. Some will only complain about the big things. Most clients will not complain about the little stuff. They prefer to let things slide. The problem with this is that it usually leads to resentment toward you.

A client with an unexpressed complaint is not going to give you referrals, and he or she is probably a candidate to move their business somewhere else — sooner or later. You need to create an environment in which doing business with you fosters your clients' candid communication.

If there is a gap between how your clients would like you to serve them and how you are actually serving them, they are likely to move their business elsewhere. The only way to know that gap — and to fill that gap — is by talking to your clients. Check in with them by saying something like, “Let’s put the market aside for a minute and talk about something we can control – like our communication. Is there anything not working for you in this area?”

Most of the time, you will hear good things. Every now and then, you’ll uncover a complaint that needs to be expressed. This can be the difference between keeping and losing a client.

After you look for the complaint, you can also say something like, “Let’s look at the other side. How have we been able to earn your loyalty in the midst of these turbulent times?”

Now your client will get in touch with the value of working with you.

Receive complaints properly

I believe that how you receive a complaint from a client goes a long way toward determining how satisfied the client will be with your resolution of the problem.

When a client is registering a complaint with you, the first few words out of your mouth and first few actions you take can make all the difference for them and for you. Start off on the wrong foot and it gets worse. Start off on the right foot and it usually gets much easier.

I'd like to give you some specific things you can do to insure you are receiving complaints in the best possible way. When receiving complaints:

1. Say, "I'm sorry."
Be genuine! Saying "I'm sorry" is not admitting fault. You're sorry they are upset, you're sorry they are frustrated, you're sorry they are not happy with something you or someone in your company did. Saying "I'm sorry" is an expression of empathy that begins to diffuse any negativity he or she may be holding.

2. Honor their perspective (whatever it is).
His or her perspective on the situation may be way off-base. That doesn't matter, at first. First, you have to treat his or her position with honor. As you learn more about it, he or she feels heard and you begin to work on changing the perspective (if appropriate).

3. Don't get defensive.
I think there is a natural tendency for most people to want to protect themselves when someone complains. Resist this at all costs. Demonstrate you are there for him or her with statements such as, "Tell me more."

4. Don't make excuses or argue.
First, you never win an argument with a client. Even if you win the battle, you'll probably lose the war (the client will walk). After you have completely heard the client's position and after you have a solution that pleases the client, you may tell him or her some of the things that contributed to the problem, but doing this too soon in the process will appear as if you are making excuses and not taking responsibility.

5. Fully understand the problem.
To demonstrate that you fully understand the complaint, repeat back to him or her what you think you heard.

6. Tell them what you're going to do next and when you'll be done - if appropriate to the situation.
Some complaints have no resolution, and your client just needs to be heard.

7. Tell them when you'll call them back.
Make and honor a commitment. If you can't honor the commitment, call them and let them know you're still working on it.

8. Thank them for bringing the issue to your attention.
Especially for the little stuff, you want to thank your clients for not holding back. You want to let them know that you desire communication that is as candid as possible.

9. Resolve the issue as quickly as possible.
The quicker the resolution, the less it will affect the overall relationship between you and your client.

10. Follow through and follow up until the problem has been resolved and all residual emotions have been cleaned up.

Please share this article with everyone on your team. A relationship (any relationship) that's had a problem that's been handled well is a stronger relationship than one that's never had a problem. Get good at encouraging candid communication from your clients so you can stop small problem from becoming bigger ones. And when clients do complain, learn to be comfortable during the complaint. Your clients can tell the difference.