Statistics vs. Believing Your Customer

True empathy and validation can diffuse a customer complaint situation.

By Kristy Westfall Moyer, Training Account Manager, Signature Worldwide

“Just because nobody complains doesn’t mean all parachutes are perfect.”—Benny Hill

In nearly every training class I facilitate, there is a Doubting Thomas in attendance. I welcome this personality type; I respect the role they play as I believe others in class may feel the same, but are too shy to speak up. I appreciate the challenges presented, as I know if I don’t have buy-in from the attendees before they leave, there will be no behavioral change.

In a recent complaint handling class I delivered to one of my San Francisco hotels, the consummate skeptic was there. Let’s call him Charles. Though I would not call this participant disrespectful, he definitely was planting seeds of doubts throughout the day and was relentless in questioning everything I delivered.

We have a series of statistics we discuss in this Legendary Complaint Handling class; the source is the White House Office of Consumer Affairs. Ninety-six percent of customers will not complain to anyone who may be able to help them. We know customers will tell everyone they know, online or in person, if they’ve received poor service. Rarely, however, will customers give the business that disappointed them another chance.

Why don’t people complain to someone who could make it right? Many reasons: They dislike confrontation, maybe they complained in the past and nothing changed, they don’t want to be perceived as mean or get anyone in trouble, and most likely they think, “Why bother?” They simply will take their business elsewhere.

The next stat says 90 percent of customers with an unresolved complaint won’t return. If we don’t fix their concern, why would they come back? Some good news: Sixty percent will come back if we resolve their issue. If we do it quickly and to their satisfaction, 95 percent will come back. We have to beg for complaints, fix them fast, and make sure the customer is pleased. Though it sounds counterintuitive (as no one truly likes to deal with unhappy customers), if we don’t ask, they won’t tell us.

The more we talk with our customers from the beginning, and continuously ask them if they are enjoying the service, what we can do better, etc., the more likely it is the customer will tell us and give us a chance to fix it if something goes wrong. They have to believe we care enough to inquire and trust we will handle it quickly.

The Bigger Issue

Back to Charles. After each stat, Charles would question the source, question the validity of it, and ultimately say that statistic just didn’t apply to his customers. And he was certain customers only complain to get something for free! It was borderline unnerving.

In situations like these, I typically can turn someone around and help them see the bigger issue. Not with Charles. He wouldn’t give up. I could not convince Charles that so few people will complain, and that customers are good people we simply have let down. He had convinced nearly everyone that he was right. He apparently is surrounded by complaining customers!

I gave in and finally said, “OK, Charles. You are right, I am wrong, as is the White House of Consumer Affairs! Ninety-six percent of customers do complain. All customers are trying to take advantage of us and get something for nothing. Now, let me ask you. Does that change anything? Does that alter the way we should deal with our customers and handle their complaints? Does that mean we can stop apologizing, empathizing, or offering a solution? No! We are in the hospitality industry, which, by definition, means we are supposed to take care of all our customers.”

This interaction was interesting on many levels. As a facilitator, I learned to “give in” and see where it would go. The point that needed to be made was still made. The class saw that the statistic (buy-in) really didn’t matter. If we choose to stay in the customer service business, we have to handle complaints in a legendary way to get the customer’s loyalty, no matter what the stats say.

Rule one in complaint handling is always believe your customer. You may think they may stretch the truth or lie to get something for free, but research tells us that is actually incorrect. The longer we deal with customers, the more jaded we become. A few bad apples who have created stories to take advantage of us possibly have tainted us. Take a step back—you may have heard it before, but this is the first time for the guest.

Take a leap of faith and believe them. Imagine how you would feel if you were in their shoes. Companies such as Nordstrom and Hampton Inns have learned that complete money-back guarantees are the way to go. Do some customers take advantage? Sure they do, but the few who do are far outnumbered by the good customers who appreciate that level of security and are willing to pay for it.

Next, empathize with them. Tell them you understand and that you, too, would be upset. People usually don’t complain—we have to pull it out of them. One of my favorite Oprah quotes: “I’ve talked to 30,000 people on this show, and they all wanted validation. Everybody wants to know, ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything?’”

Validate them. Once you’ve done that, they are more likely to listen to their proposed solution. True empathy and validation diffuses the situation. It makes it difficult for the customer to stay upset when you have told them they are right! Now they feel like you are their ally. Lastly, offer a fast solution, ask if it makes them satisfied and if they will come back.

Beg for complaints. Validate your customers. They will remain yours. Whether every one of your customers, like Charles’ complains, or your company matches the 96 percent standard, the process remains the same.

Kristy Westfall Moyer is a training account manager with Signature Worldwide, a Dublin, OH-based company that offers sales and customer service training, marketing, and mystery shopping services for a variety of service-based industries. For more information, call 800.398.0518 or visit You also can connect with Signature Worldwide on Twitter @SignatureWorld and on Facebook.

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