Posted: 15th April 2021

Complaints are made when the relationship between brand and customer has broken down. Because of this, the first impressions made during the complaints journey will often set the tone for future interactions. Get it right and you can be rewarded with loyalty and advocacy but get it wrong and you face an uphill struggle to win back trust.

But why is this first stage in complaints so crucial? And how can firms make it easier for customers to complain? For the first time, Huntswood’s Complaints Outlook 2021 report tracks the emotional customer journey through the complaints process. To understand how firms can achieve best practice in complaint handling, we must first consider the emotional reaction we – as consumers – have when it comes to barriers.

What happens when we go to complain?

According to our data, 64% of people told us the primary emotion felt when experiencing an issue with their product or service is frustration. If making a complaint is made difficult, this will increase further – with 74% admitting to feeling frustrated and 57% feeling angry by the time they get to speak to someone. If they can easily make a complaint, this number can be reduced to 45%.

This emotional reaction will make the initial complaint experience more difficult, but it will also play an important role in the future of the relationship too. This is because when we experience barriers like these, they create negative responses – or negative prediction errors – in our brain. Once these responses have been triggered, we learn to avoid them so not to induce disappointment and frustration again in future.

The impact on retention

Speaking on the Hunstwood Podcast, Patricia Riddell, Professor of Applied Neuroscience at Reading University, explained this process further:

“We set up an expectation in our mind about what we're likely to get when we interact with a business. The organisation can then either meet that expectation – in which case everybody is happy, and nothing changes – or it can fail to meet that expectation. If the latter happens, you've predicted that you'll get something better than you actually end up with. At this point, the dopamine reward system turns off and customers are left feeling that they have been treated unfairly.

“Our brains remember this. So much so that, if you've had a bad experience with an organisation and they've made it difficult to complain, your automatic thought is ‘I’m not going through that again’.”

Data from our Complaints Outlook 2021 report supports this theory; customers who find it easy to complain are 28% more likely to remain customers. While that figure is telling, there’s still a disconnect between how companies feel their complaint’s function is performing and the experience customers are having. In fact, 96% of firms believe they already make it easy for customers to raise a complaint, while only 38% of customers hold the same view.

This is clearly a wonderful opportunity for improvement with what appears to be relatively small changes which should, have a positive impact on customer experiences.

How to make it easy to complain

Our experience indicates that giving customers various and easily accessible routes to complain provides optimum experiences for customers. The first port of call generally is a website and its therefore important that businesses make their complaints information easy to find and understand – preferably on the homepage.

To build on accessibility there should be a variety of channel options for customers to submit that complaint. Following the pandemic, people are increasingly looking towards digital self-serve platforms to engage; be it email web-chat or social media. Business should aim to reflect this desire in their offerings and provide omnichannel experiences so that complaints are logged across all platforms and customers achieve a single source of submission without having to repeat themselves.

This increased desire for digital channels requires that businesses adapt their models to reflect this access at any time they need, with flexibility to deal with peaks in demand whilst remaining present and engaged in the process. As Sam Bettis, Social Media Director at UX agency Ethology, said: “it’s about being present”.

“Being present can mean multiple things; from being in the right place at the right time to showing empathy. It shows that firms are invested in the conversation that they are having. They are not copying and pasting responses from a spreadsheet to every complaint. They are understanding how that individual is feeling and responding appropriately. That's the only real way to remove the barriers in the complaints journey."

For firms, there are real commercial benefits to getting complaints right. Best practice begins at the very start of the journey, by giving customers the tools to easily make a complaint in the first place. In doing so, you are showing them that you’re interested in hearing their concerns, are committed to helping them reach a resolution and that will ultimately help in earning their trust and loyalty in future.

Richard Brown, Technical Advisor for complaints at Huntswood, is joined by customer experience experts, Sam Bettis and Patricia Riddell, to explore the importance of making it easy to complain on the Huntswood Podcast

Richard brown

Richard Brown

Technical Advisor - Complaints