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Complaints occur when the relationship between a brand and customer is at most risk of erosion. If handled right, a complaint can result in long term loyalty and advocacy. However, if handled poorly, it can result in losing that customer completely. This begins from the very first step in a customer’s complaints journey: research from our Complaints Outlook 2021 report found that customers who find it easy to complain are 28% more likely to stay with their provider.

To explore this in more detail, Richard talks to Sam Bettis, Social Media Director at UX agency Ethology, and Patricia Riddell, Professor of Applied Neuroscience at Reading University. They discuss the behavioural impact that barriers in the complaints journey can have, the knock‐on effect for brands, the benefits of listening to customers and what steps firms can take to ensure best practice.
 

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Richard Brown:

Hello, and welcome to The Huntswood Podcast. This is the first episode in a new series of podcasts that we'll take a closer look at the six themes highlighted in our latest research paper. The complainants are under 2021. If you haven't already got a copy of this, you can find it on our website. This year's outlook focuses on the emotional journey of customers from each phase of the complaints process. With more than 50 financial services and utility firms, 2,500 customers and 500 complaint handlers participating, our research cause a unique insight, which allows firms to identify opportunities to make a step change in delivering complaints, accidents and increase customer retention and advocacy.

The first phase highlighted in the report and the one we'll be discussing today explores the pros and cons of making it easy for customers to complain. Our research found that customers who find it easy to complain are 28% more likely to remain customers. That figure is telling, but there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to what customers and companies think. 96% of firms believe they already make it easy to raise a complaint while only 38% of customers hold the same view. We want to dig a little deeper into this topic and discuss how breaking down barriers for customers to complain can actually benefit your business.

My name is Richard Brown technical advisor for complaints here at Huntswood. And I'm joined today by Patricia Riddle, who is a chanted psychologist and professor specializing in neuroscience. Patricia uses her knowledge and skills to help organizations develop better leaders, create better teams and design more innovative products. I'm also joined by Sam Bettis, who is a social media director and passionate user experience advocate for Ethology, a customer experience consultancy. Hi both and thanks for joining me today. It'd be good to start by getting your views on what does good look like when making it easy for a customer to complain. Perhaps Sam, we can start with you on this one.

Sam Bettis:

Sure. I think that far too many organizations place focus on perhaps how to reduce the overall volumes of complaints rather than perhaps putting themselves out there to capture those complaints and learn from them. So if we think not about assessing a KPI around reducing the volume of complaints, we can then start looking at how can we learn from listening to our customer? How are we improving and benchmarking our overall customer experience and being that and what could be better about our overall product and service? So it's really important firstly, that we flip our internal KPIs on their head and refocus where we're really measuring our efforts. And then in terms of what good then starts to look like, it's as simple as just being there, it's being in the right place at the right time. It's understanding as a user, what do they need from you?

There's a really interesting analogy in Internet Service Providers. Quite often, when you change Internet Service Providers, the reason for that is that you've just moved house and you might be unpacking a load of boxes and you might need help with an issue that you're having or you might've experienced some delays and being on hold for an hour, doesn't really fit in with that because you'd feel a lot better if you could crack on with unpacking your boxes and settling into your new home. So, that's where we think the best way that we can be there and capture that complaint and let the customer know that they will get a response to it. Could be over a message because then for the customer, they can say their peace, feel reassured that you are going to get back to them, but they've not given you an hour of their day and that experience sympathy be better, can start to turn that negative into a positive.

Richard Brown:

Great stuff. Thanks so much Sam and actually having just moved house myself in the last week or two, that's a very relevant point to me and very pertinent. But very good. And Patricia, the same question for you, if you don't mind.

Patricia Riddle:

Yeah. And I think being a customer myself, if I was to think about what I would want, if I was complaining or if I was wanting to get in touch with the company to get a question answered, it's feeling that I'm valued, feeling that they want me to be there. That the fact that I'm a customer is important to them and therefore that they want to get it right for me. So this is as much about listening, being able to hear what the person's saying and not just responding in the way that you think suits the organization best, but really listening to what the customer wants and needs and reflecting that back to them, making them feel heard. And when you do that, then you will immediately make people feel better because part of what we're doing when we're complaining it's asking to be heard. So it's really about letting people know that you've got it and that you will do something about it.

Richard Brown:

I think just from my perspective, I think there's a couple of things that are very relevant to me in terms of making it easy to complain. I think the first is having an easily accessible route to make complaints. And I'd say most commonly that for a customer is probably on the firm's website and it needs to be clear on the website and I think it should be and we should be very proud of having a complaints process that is transparent on the front page. So I would say, "Make it easy. I want to go to a website, I want to see it even a couple of seconds, not take five minutes to try and find how I make a complaint." And I think the second one, and maybe this is quite relevant because of the pandemic we've through or going through the moment is the means of making a complaint and firms should be offering various contact points beyond just what I see quite often as you have to phone up to make a complaint.

And I find from personal experience when I'm angry or frustrated, I don't really want to talk to a person. I find that quite off-putting. So I think give customers a channel that they feel comfortable with in terms of making the complaints be that email, web chats, social media just offer that range to customers so they feel comfortable. So moving on and perhaps Patricia, I can turn to you to start this one off. But can first impressions in managing complaints, improve the customer mindset at the time they make the complaint? And what effect will this have on the end to end complaint journey?

Patricia Riddle:

I think maybe here dropping in just a nugget of neuroscience might help. So if you think about... If you've decided that something has gone wrong with a product or a service, then the first thing that you might want is support or somebody to talk to and take you seriously. And we set up an expectation in our mind about what we're likely to get. There're customers that the... Sorry. The organization can then either meet that expectation. In which case everybody's happy in that nothing changes. But if the organization don't meet that expectation and you've predicted that you'll get something better than you actually end up with, then what happens is that you turn off the dopamine reward system and you make people feel negative about their emotional journey. They're immediately now feeling angry and frustrated and cross that they will feel that they've been treated unfairly.

And when you feel that you've been treated unfairly, you want somebody to suffer for it. So if you want your staff to get angry people, then set it up so that it's difficult. If you want your staff to have customers that they're wanting support and are willing to tell people what's going wrong and hope that it will get better, then set it up so that it's easy and it meets their expectations. In fact, even better, it goes above their expectations. So you're in control of the initial impression that you're going to make on that person's brain.

Richard Brown:

Great. Thanks, Patricia. And Sam, same question for you.

Sam Bettis:

I think that's some really interesting points from Patricia, which organizations need to listen to and build on by perhaps even being a bit proactive with their complaints process. Like you can make it so much easier. Like if you think about an organization who is an e-commerce organization and they deliver products to the customer, the amount of information they have around their supply chain, the deliveries process, the product, there's enough intelligence within the organization that we should be in a position where we can start to see when things are going to go wrong. And this is where we can be proactive and say to the customer through an email, "We think that your delivery is going to be delayed. We're here to help. Request a callback." And that productivity invites the complaint or it offers help. Either way, you've immediately not given the customer a surprise. You've given them an opportunity to understand the problem and why organizations don't use their data this way is quite incredible because yes, we're opening ourselves up to people, say bad stuff, but it could be a lot worse if we don't.

Richard Brown:

I think just from my experience, and I see this from time and time again, when supporting clients and listening to complaints. I think that it's much easy to get a customer on your side if they're in a better frame of mind to begin with. Therefore, if the customer is frustrated at the start, it would be much harder to bring them around, I think and probably a bit potentially more time-consuming. It's interesting Patricia, to hear your moments ago because I think from my own experience and I don't think I'm alone in this. But, if you make it harder for me, I think in return, I'm actually quite stubborn and obstructive person and I'm actually going to make it much harder for you as a firm. And I think that probably is quite telling for me, but I don't think I'm alone necessarily, but I think to get me around in that scenario is going to take me much longer and potentially more costly.

And I think at times it may be just an apology and the resolution put right would have been sufficient whereas of now actually I want to be a bit more difficult. So potentially the resolution isn't apology anymore. Maybe it's a financial award or some sort of compensation. So it's interesting you talk about Patricia, because I think you just described me a little bit, about how I behave sometimes. So I guess now we've covered the importance of making it easy for customers to complain on first impressions, we'll discuss the impacts on the company's brand. So turning to you, Patricia, if you don't mind, how can barriers in the complaints process affect the company's brand?

Patricia Riddle:

Well, any interaction that a customer has with the company is going to reflect on their brand. So, if you've made the process easy, if you've listened to them, if you've apologized and said, "You're right. We're sorry. We'll get that sorted for you." Then you're much more likely to think, "Okay, I can trust these people. These people had done something wrong. They've accepted it. We all know that the mistakes are human. And so I know that if I go with this organization, again, I'm likely to get the same treatment."

So you've set up a prediction for the future in the way that this customer will expect to be treated. And given that you don't know how and all organizations are going to treat you, if that expectation is good, then you're much, much more likely to go back to that organization again. Why risk not getting the same good experience when you know that you can get a good experience from this organization, even when things go wrong. So I think dealing well with complaints improves customer brands. And just in the same way, if you've had a bad experience with an organization and they've made it difficult to complain, then you're likely to say, "Well, I'm not doing that again." And you will look for another opportunity. So you'll take a different organization in the chance that they'll deal better with your complaints in future. So I think it can have a major impact.

Sam Bettis:

Yeah, I think there's a lot to be said that the more barriers that you put in the way, the more visibility that you can generate as well. A lot of people just simply want their problem resolved. They just simply want an answer to the question. They don't want to in the first instance, go out on a mission to damage your brand, but it's what you get pushed to. I'm purchasing a house at the moment and there are five phone numbers on my solicitor's website. I've tried them all and I think that the one that I really want to get through to, is the one that never picks up and that is incredibly frustrating. And in all honesty, I don't want to use my personal Twitter account to complain about the solicitor, but I'm so desperate to be heard. That's probably what I'm going to do now.

And I looked at some data the other day for a brand that I work with. And I think there was something about 1,600 complaints on Twitter, which isn't a huge number in the grand scheme of things. But the tool that I was using showed me that those 1,600 complaints generated about six million impressions. So, that is the complaint sort of when they're pushed to that last resort of venting on social media and they are not getting the response that they want. That's really doing damage.

And I don't know if you remember an example a few years back now about a guy whose guitar got broken on I think it was a flight and he couldn't get help that he needed. He messaged everyone privately. He tried to phone people. He just wanted his problem resolved. He just wanted the airlines to pay for the guitar. Because he didn't get the help he needed, he then made a song about his bad experience and he put paid spend behind it because on the social channels, the playing field is level. The power is in the customer's hands and if you don't help them, they can shout just as loud as you. It's no longer a case of you can hide your problems. The customer, if they really want to, they can go viral. They can put paid spend behind that content. The power is in their hands so, be nice to them.

Richard Brown:

I think that's a really good example, Sam. And I think from my experience of working with clients is they don't really have the skill set at the moment to handle social media complaints. I think that's just my impression at the moment and hope they know they can be so powerful. So for example, I actually have a friend who's had a very bad experience with a building firm in her new kitchen. And she's taken to Facebook. So every time the company posts an advert about their services, she will reply about her bad experience. And this has spiraled quite out of control, but it just goes to show how powerful this new way wave of social media can be on firms. It's very interesting.

Sam Bettis:

I had experience when I was working in house where somebody was so upset with their experience, with the brand that they made a Twitter account to retweet every single complaint about this brand. People do get grudges if you don't help them, it's a really natural thing.

Richard Brown:

So yeah, definitely an area to be careful on. I think it just goes to show, get it right in the first place. And I think you're halfway there. I think also, I guess it's really relevant. These points take back to the findings in the complaints' outlook and really just to recap what I said at the start, if you make it easy for customers to complain, they're 20% more likely to remain a customer with you. And that's so powerful. In an area that arguably is very, very simple for firms to get right. So a really powerful statistic there.

The final one and make this from my experience. So, I worked for firms that are in a very heavily regulated industry. So it's not unusual for me to see their regulators pick up on firms where they have issues here. And we have had instances where they've publicly named and shamed firms for getting complaint handling and complaint identification role. And that for me is very, very damaging on a firm's reputation and definitely wants to be avoided. So Sam, perhaps you can start off with the next one and that is, why is it important to have visibility of all complaints made?

Sam Bettis:

I think alongside any complaints handling strategy, it is so important that you have a listening strategy and that listening strategy is the thing that creates a feedback loop from the customer to the organization. It's not necessarily always just about complaints. It's about capturing problems as well. But it's as simple as if you don't listen, you cannot possibly learn. And so we for example, use a lot of digital listening on our side to make sure that we're always capturing every single word that's being said about our clients, categorizing them to make sure that we're actively learning from them. Because I just can't imagine a world where everyone's saying that your service is no good and you're just ignoring it. It's a bit Emperor's New Clothes really. And I think historically marketing teams and operational service teams have been very much in two separate silos and there's been a lack of empathy created free of those silos.

And from my background in social, my role has always sat somewhere in between them. So I feel like I've been really fortunate in that I've had the service teams telling me, "Hey, Sam. Don't post that content because people aren't going to like it." And then I can take that into account and that's because that feedback loop is there. That's because we're able to listen and I feel the industry on the whole is moving towards a space where we are going to start listening more is becoming a higher importance.

There is so much technology out there at the moment which enables us to capture everything and that's where we need to be focusing now. We should make data backed decisions. I think even for some of my clients, for example, they may only be active on Facebook and Instagram but what we have is an always on listening program across the web, because if suddenly an issue crops up on Twitter and people are being quite vocal about it, then we need to get there. We need to go and help these people. And you can't be there for anyone if you don't know where they are and you're not trying to capture that.

Richard Brown:

Yeah. That is great. Thank you Sam. Really good insight there. And Patricia for you.

Patricia Riddle:

And I think there's another thing about the way that companies use information to set strategy. If all you want to hear is the things that are going well with your products and you don't hear the things where you have actually have room for improvements, then how can you be more innovative? How can you create products that people really want? So there's something for me about making sure that you hear all of the evidence available. Don't focus just on the good evidence because we learn just as much from our mistakes as we do from where we get things right. And in fact, essentially even more from our mistakes. So by turning off that channel, I think companies are actually missing the opportunity to build better products based on what people are telling them that they want changed. That's such a great source of information. So I think it should be used as a real boom to organizations when they're setting strategy rather than something that they want to avoid.

Richard Brown:

I think I'm very inclined to agree with you there. I think we're almost a little bit afraid of getting potentially that sort of negative customer feedback, but actually it's so powerful for an organization that surely you want to know what's going wrong. If nothing else to sort of help that customer, but also prevent it from happening to other customers. And it's a fairly effective means in my experience of reducing operational costs if you're fixing the underlying problems, it could be very, very cost efficient for businesses to, to fix problems and get it right. We are actually looking for a bit more detail, I think in later podcasts, because we actually look at how effective recalls analysis can be. So, potentially watch out for that one coming down the line.

Patricia Riddle:

And I really think that there's an opportunity to be innovative from that data too. And not just to stop fixing the things that people are saying. Our customers are a fantastic source of ideas for how we could improve the products, how we can offer them something that's even better than we'd previously imagined. So this is about not just fixing complaints. It's about going forward and getting ahead of the competition.

Richard Brown:

Yeah. Absolutely right. Couldn't agree more. So I think the final area we'll discuss today and Sam, if it's okay to start with you. What confirms to you to overcome barriers in making a complaint?

Sam Bettis:

It's three key cornerstones to focus on in terms of focusing on a really customer first way to capturing and handling complaints really barrier free of a way. And the first part there is listen. When you listen, you're learning, you're constantly understanding where the customer is and therefore how you can be there by their side. You're looking at what channels they prefer to complain on. You're also looking at your competitors and how they're making complaints easier because if the competitor has started using WhatsApp, for example and they're experiencing positive feedback off the back of that, then that's a signal that you should start to do the same. I guess really it's just about listening to the customer in every way possible and understanding their needs. And once you understand their needs, then you can make a smooth experience with less barriers.

And then after listen, the second key area of focus to really remove those barriers is be present. And I think be present covers off everything from being in the right place at the right time. It also means that we're empathizing, we're invested in the conversation that we are having. We are not copying and pasting responses from a spreadsheet to every complaint. We are understanding how that individual is feeling and we're responding appropriately. Being present means that we are there with that person and we're asking how we can help. And that's the only real way to really remove the barriers because the barriers can barely be present just in a way that we're speaking to people. How many times have you spoken to somebody and just felt like, "You're not hearing me. You're really not hearing me."

And then the final key area is take action. Every single complaint, every single experience is a valuable sort of stairs towards whatever we need to do next. So you end up in a complaint cycle rather than a fixed complaint strategy where we're always learning that a customer always starts asking for help. And then it becomes a complaint usually. So you can learn about how that happened and you can use that to shape your future strategies.

Patricia Riddle:

And I think what Sam says is really, really important. So I guess the thing that I'd be thinking about here is how do you train people to do that? And what is it that you're giving them that will help them to be able to answer complaints in that way? Empathy is going to be hugely important., Being nonjudgmental. You have no idea what's going on in this person's life at the moment and why they're complaining, why these complaints has come up for them.

So, the other thing would be, be curious. What's happened that's made you want to complain like this? That must be really dreadful for you. What went on? Talk to people and let them tell you a little bit about their story and make them, as I said at the beginning, feel valued. But that takes a special kind of person. And so making sure that your staff has the right training so that they understand how to do that and how to do it effectively will also be really important.

Richard Brown:

Just to follow on from something you said there around empathy and staff. Have you seen this done well within organizations? And if so, what are some good tips in terms of getting that right for frontline staff?

Patricia Riddle:

I think for my own experience, one of the companies that I've had to deal with is Octopus, the energy company. And they have been remarkably good, they are always willing to admit that there's a problem. They've worked really hard to resolve things for us, even when the problem has been the result of something that's not really within their control. They've listened really hard. We've had feedback from the top of the organizations saying, "I've been told about your problem and I just really want to let you know that I've heard and that we are doing something about it." And the fact that it was escalated to higher level and we got that reassurance that this wasn't something that was sitting on somebody's desk or on somebody's computer, but that had been taken seriously enough that it had been escalated not by us, but by them. I thought that was really, really remarkable and made me feel very confident that I had been listened to, that I've been heard and that something would happen.

Richard Brown:

And I guess in that example, have they done anything super whizzy or are we just talking about basics here? Just a tone of culture that says, "Do the right thing by the customer."

Patricia Riddle:

They have trained their people from the very bottom to the very top to answer really appropriately. And every message that we got was written for us, was cheerful, useful and told us what was going to happen next. When I was listening to them, I was thinking, "Oh my goodness. Your training is just remarkably good. I'm really, really impressed." Because it goes from the bottom right to the top. It was across the board.

Richard Brown:

I guess the final point for me on this. And it kind of alludes to that. I think my dealings with organizations, I think sometimes I do sense a cultural change towards complaints needs to be made. The complaint function and complaining customers always seems a bit like a problem child or a bit of a big inconvenience to the business and not very operationally effective because it's not very glamorous and we don't make a lot of money that way. But I think what we've discussed today actually, that's completely wrong. That's the wrong mindset. And actually, it's the wrong outcome because actually if you get this right, as we said at the start, it's good retention and good customer advocacy and actually arguably it's probably more satisfying for the businesses' staff.

If they're actually well-trained and they're actually making a difference, it almost becomes a very effective operation that can do really well and self-learn and do the right thing by the customer. So, that brings the discussion to a close. So thank you very much, Patricia and Sam for joining me today, I found that really insightful, very, very useful. Now if you find this podcast insightful. I would like to listen to the next series of complaints out of the podcast. Just keep it on our website and subscribe to our channel on your favorite streaming platform. Alternatively, just head over to huntswood.com\insights and you can sign up here to our mailing lists and we'll make sure we keep you up to date with white papers, blogs, videos and more podcasts.