Know the Difference Between Customer Service and Complaint Resolution

Excerpt from “The Entrepreneurial Culture, How to Engage and Empower Your People” by Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey (Footnotes Press, LLC, 2014).

These days, most companies have anything ranging from one person to a whole department dedicated to so-called “customer service.” But let’s be honest: For many of these departments, truly gratifying service isn’t on the menu. They’re more like “complaint resolution” departments. They take calls or answer e-mails from unhappy customers and then try to resolve the problem as quickly as possible (often relying on a script or protocol), then move on to the next.

It’s understandable. Dealing with unhappy customers isn’t anyone’s idea of fun. But the desire to “solve” their problems as quickly and painlessly (for you and your employees) as possible actually might be doing your company a disservice. Remember, happy customers are the lifeblood of your business and also one of your most valuable potential marketing tools, so no one at a company should rest until customers are impressed…not just satisfied. That means going way above and beyond merchandise exchanges and money-back guarantees.

Here’s how we recommend handling customer service:

  • Give it away. We recommend winning your disappointed customers back by giving your employees room to offer them free products and/or services. That’s because when you only refund unhappy customers the money they paid, they’ll proceed to take their business elsewhere in the future. After all, you’ve given them only what’s due to them, not a compelling reason to stay. However, when you give customers free goods and services instead of, or even on top of, the refund, you’re saying, “We care about what you think! Please give us another chance to show you we can exceed your expectations!”

And your employees will appreciate this approach, too. You’re showing them you trust them to use their best thinking to handle customer complaints and to do what they think is necessary to satisfy the customer. When you show them you trust them to think on their feet and assess these kinds of situations, it will help them develop and hone their entrepreneurial thinking skills.

  • Start a conversation. Get your employees in the habit of seeing customer service as a way for your company to get real and timely feedback about your goods and services from the people who are using them. Train employees to ask about the customer’s experience with your company’s products, where they bought them, how much they paid, how it performed for them, etc., and to listen to the answers. This information is priceless for your production and marketing people because it will enable them to meaningfully improve your products and communication—which, in turn, could make the difference in your company staying relevant. So make sure your employees are proactive about starting these conversations and encourage them to share questions that get great feedback from customers with each other.
  • Look for ways to make customers happy. Yes, of course, your employees should strive to win customers back whenever they’re dissatisfied. But no one at your company should be sitting around waiting for problems to arise. Encourage your employees to proactively think about what the company can do every day to make customers happy. These solutions don’t have to be difficult or complex. For example, at Barefoot, we thought of store displays as “retail entertainment.” We added color, fun, and seasonal theme sets for the enjoyment of our customers as they shopped. And if these displays naturally caught new shoppers’ eyes…so much the better! Again, this is another great discussion to constantly have with your employees. Encourage them to share their ideas for creating happier customers—no matter how crazy! You never know what’s going to work.
  • Make customer service part of every employee’s job description. Ensure that everyone in your organization, from your receptionist to your office people, from your salespeople to your delivery people, and from your service people to your cashiers, knows where the money that pays their paycheck comes from: Your customer! At Barefoot, new hires got an organization chart that showed the customer on top, as well as a “money map” that showed how the money came from the customer through the distribution channels, paid all the bills, and wound up in their paychecks.

Anyone with any customer contact should be ready to give sincere personalized attention: acknowledging the customer’s presence; making eye contact; addressing them by name; and conducting business in a helpful, friendly, and personable manner. We suggest putting some teeth in this relationship by introducing incentives and bonuses based on sales, growth, and company profits.

  • Expand the definition of “customer.” When they hear the word, “customer,” your employees probably think about the end recipient of your company’s product: the person who hands over the cash in order to take the merchandise home. At Barefoot, though, we found it helpful to broaden our definition of “customer,” and, thus, “customer service.” Specifically, we considered everyone who bought or handled Barefoot to be a customer: In addition to shoppers, that included distributors, brokers, retailers, etc. We knew that each entity that touched Barefoot, from the winery to the shopper, “bought” it for a different reason. We tried to address each buyer’s needs while providing them with speedy service, product availability, and friendliness, because if dealing with Barefoot was easy and profitable, that meant it would be more widely available for the shoppers who wanted to buy it. It also meant more sales and profits for us, too!

Ultimately, customers who call in with “complaints” represent less than 1 percent of the customers who are unhappy with your product, and who now are purchasing elsewhere. Try to head off as many complaints (voiced and unvoiced!) as possible by developing entrepreneurial-thinking employees who seek to over-deliver to all of your customers.

And here’s something everyone at your company should remember: When someone does call in or comment with a complaint, you’re fortunate to have the opportunity to hear what they think because their opinion can help your marketing, products, and services improve. (How else would you know what you’re doing wrong?) Best of all, these re-wooed customers are the most likely to become advocates for your products and services because they already have demonstrated a propensity for talking about them. Why not keep these customers talking? Only this time, as advocates!

Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey will present a Training Magazine Network Webinar on "Engage and Empower Your People to Ignite Sales" on Thursday, February 25, 2016, at 1 p.m. Eastern on To register, click here.

Excerpt from “The Entrepreneurial Culture, How to Engage and Empower Your People” by Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey (Copyright © 2014 by Footnotes Press, LLC). For more information, visit

The iconic Barefoot brand was started in a laundry room by Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey, two charismatic, hardworking people with no money or experience in the wine industry. Their rags-to-riches story is chronicled in The New York Times bestselling book, “The Barefoot Spirit.” From the start, they employed innovative ideas to overcome obstacles, create new markets, and strategic alliances, while pioneering Worthy Cause Marketing and performance-based compensation. Since successfully selling their brand to E&J Gallo, Houlihan and Harvey consult with Fortune 500 companies and travel the world speaking to corporations, conferences, universities, and symposiums on their Guiding Principles for Success (GPS). They are the recipients of the 2014 Distinguished Entrepreneurship Speaker Award from the Turner School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Bradley University, have spoken at (and have their book in) more than 30 universities, and have hundreds of articles in professional business publications online and in print. Check out their recent article in Forbes regarding exceptional customer service. Their most recent book is “The Entrepreneurial Culture, How to Engage and Empower Your People” (Copyright © 2014 by Footnotes Press, LLC).

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