By Ben Henry

Why should businesses encourage their customers to complain? Because research indicates that out of every hundred customers who have something to complain about, only four actually complain ... the rest take their business elsewhere. What does this tell us? That it is absolutely essential that managers get their own feedback every day. They should practice MBWA ... Management By Wandering Around. A manager cannot view the world from the inside of an office. He/she should go wander with their customers. Ask customers about your service ... what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong. Remember, the customer is the sole judge - the sole arbiter - of your service. If they say it's good, then it's good. If they say it's bad, then it's bad, no matter what you think. The customer's perception of your service is the only one that counts. So go ask them.

The fisherman never says his fish stinks. You go to the fishing village to buy some fish and you pick one up and sniff it and you think it's a bit off. You tell the fisherman that the fish doesn't smell too good and he swears that nothing is wrong with the fish. He takes the fish from you, and sniffs at it and confidently tells you, "No man, nothing wrong with the fish ... ah so them smell. Me already sell 150 pounds of the same fish."

You go into a business place and you get to talking with the manager. The discussion somehow leads to "customer service". You ask the manager how is the service and he says, "Great, man ... can't complain." You ask him how he knows that the service is great and he confidently tells you that he is here every night and the service is great? Would you believe this manager? Well, I wouldn't. "The fisherman never says his fish stink." I would certainly believe the manager if his answer is, "My service is great because my customers tell me so." The customer is the sole judge of your service.

In addition to getting their own feedback from customers, managers need to encourage their employees to also ask customers about the service ... to comment on the service delivered to them; what they are doing right, so that they can continue to do it; and what they are doing wrong, so that they can fix it. You get "living' feedback daily from customers, when you take such a proactive approach. When you remember that most customers who have something to complain about don't bother, this proactive approach becomes critical for the business. This approach encourages customers to complain, and you are able to fix the problem and keep the customer.

Customer complaints are windows of opportunity for the organization to correct the problem. But how do we make things right for the complaining customer? By using a very simple but effective approach. It consists of seven steps, and every single employee in an organization should be trained to resolve customer complaints successfully using this approach. Let's take a look at this approach.

STEP I ... Listen to the customer's complaint. Don't interrupt him/her. Let him/her vent.

STEP II ... Empathize with the customer after he has aired his complaint. Empathy is the ability to understand how another person is feeling, but not feeling the way they feel. An empathetic statement such as "Mrs. Jones, you have a right to be upset" or "You have a right to expect results" will make the complaining customer feel better. Empathy takes care of the customer's emotional state. It is absolutely essential that you empathize before you apologize.

STEP III ... Apologize to the customer for the inconvenience caused. It might have nothing to do with you, but you are apologizing for your organization.

STEP IV ... Offer a solution. If at all possible, suggest alternative solutions and let the customer choose the one he/she likes best. When you are able to do this, it makes the customer feel that he/she is in control, or at least a co-architect of the suggested solution.

STEP V ... Act on the problem. Get cracking on resolving the problem. Co-opt others if it requires a team effort.

STEP VI ... Follow through. Make sure that whoever is dealing with the resolution of the customer's complaint is actually working on it. Keep checking at regular intervals. When the problem has been worked on, thank the team member(s) for their sterling work.

STEP VII ... Check back. Whenever it is possible, check back with the customer. It shows caring and it will cement the loyalty the customer has for the organization.

When customers complain, it is usually because their expectations were not met. The purpose of the 7-step approach is to change a dissatisfied customer back to a satisfied one. Research shows that 90-95 percent of complaining customers will continue to do business with you once the complaints have been resolved to their satisfaction.