I have been studying complaint handling around the world for almost two decades. I frequently hear that complaint handling (or claims as they are sometimes called) by service providers is highly
dependent upon cultural differences. Of course, there are always variations, but by and large, the field is actually quite consistent. Here are four additional myths that I have found to be uniformly false concerning complaint handling. Yet, almost all of these are believed around the world.

Myth # 1: People naturally know how to handle complaints. After all, they’ve been receiving them their entire lives.

Reality: Most people have to check their natural reactions when they receive complaints. At some level, a complaint is perceived as an attack, and when attacked most of us feel inclined to defend, especially if the complaint is delivered in a blaming manner. This tendency to defend happens around the world. Effective complaint handling requires that service providers counter their habitual, natural, or cultural tendencies.

Most people have to get a considerable distance from their complaint handling to understand how their behavior may not be appropriate, even though it may feel right at the time. When personnel who handle complaints hear themselves on tape with customers, they are frequently surprised that they sound so hostile and arrogant. The consequence of people not knowing how to “naturally” respond to complaints creates the additional problem of complaint handlers justifying their behavior to customers. After all, whatever their responses are, those responses feel “right.” Almost no one intentionally mishandles complaints. This puts the complaint handler in the position of believing that, when a complaint situation doesn’t go right, the person complaining is responsible.

Myth # 2: It’s a good idea to set targets to reduce the number of complaints you receive.

Reality: Really bad idea! When you set targets to reduce complaints, your staff will help you by not reporting the bad news they hear. This happens everywhere I have worked around the globe. Setting targets to reduce complaints encourages staff to make sure your organization receives less customer feedback. Staff will make it more difficult for customers to complain; or they will discard complaint evidence.

Suppose, for example, a global payroll firm offers a bonus to local office managers who reduce the number of complaints that are received. It is common for staff to “help” ensure a good reputation for their general manager with the corporate offices by simply tearing up the negative feedback forms. All the general manager has to do to encourage this type of behavior is to say, “Well, we got another negative piece of feedback from one of our customers. They sure won’t be happy about this at corporate.” It is unlikely that the manager will ever again have to ask staff to fix this problem.

Myth # 3: If you give customers what they want, you have satisfied them.

Reality: No way! Giving customers what they want when they complain does not guarantee satisfaction — anywhere in the world. There is a huge emotional component to complaints. If this emotionality is not addressed, you can give customers everything they want, and they will still walk away upset. Good complaint handlers always understand and then address the psychological dimensions of complaining.

For example, if a customer finds mistakes in a service you provide them, they will undoubtedly complain and want the situation fixed immediately. They may also want a refund of some sort. Let’s assume that – after many lengthy telephone calls, several strong e-mails and letters, threats, etc. – the customer receives a reduction in the monthly bill for the period of time the mistake was made. Although, in this situation, the customer ultimately got what they wanted, they are not likely to be pleased. They had to fight to get what they felt was rightfully theirs. Every time the customer deals with this company, they will be reminded of their unpleasant fight when something went wrong.

They wanted rapid, polite, compassionate and error-free treatment. Yes, the mistake was remedied, but they didn’t receive the emotional response that perhaps was just as important to them.

Myth # 4: Complaints are a sign that your company is not doing a quality job.

Reality: Companies inevitably create some dissatisfaction with their customers. Having zero defects is a useful target, not a realistic possibility. There will always be some room for improvement. However, your quality will suffer when you fail to hear this dissatisfaction.

It’s not a good situation when your customers report huge numbers of complaints. That’s clearly a sign that something is wrong. At the same time, it’s a big mistake to conclude that you are doing a great job because you never hear complaints. Most dissatisfied customers do not take the trouble to complain. They just walk away and go to a competitor. This is especially pronounced in some cultures and less pronounced in others.

Complaints represent an open dialogue with those customers who are giving you a chance to keep their business — wherever your business is located. When customers complain, they are giving you information you might otherwise not hear that you can use to improve your quality. At a minimum, complaining customers are talking with you, rather than the rest of the world. And that is a gift!