Responding to written complaints

We have all been there ourselves. From taking to social media to spending hours on an automated phone waiting queue to writing a formal letter or email. From a parcel that has not been delivered or faulty item to a service outage, we have all contacted a company to complain about a service or product that has, quite simply, failed to live up to our expectations.

It may be a Wi-Fi signal outage, a new television that has not been delivered on time, human error, food that has arrived raw or cold to the table, or broken goods.

Processing, escalating and acting upon complaints has become a natural part of our jobs as professionals, regardless of the industry we are in. Recording a complaint and acting on this form of customer feedback expeditiously is vital to maintaining brand reputation, trust and ensuring a quality service to new and returning customers.

Each business should have a formal policy outlining their customer complaints’ procedure. This avoids customers ending up in endless loops being thrown between each department of your business. A joined-up approach should aim to provide a satisfactory outcome within a suitable timeframe and offer a degree of reassurance. In most cases a form of apology and reason for why things may have went wrong, or not delivered a satisfactory service, should also be offered. Your policy should aim to resolve their complaint, provide feedback to managers for the relevant department, act as insight for management for your business’ shortcomings and minimise any potential legal disputes. In an ideal world, feedback resulting from customers’ complaints should be communicated by managers to staff at ground level, such as through daily, weekly or monthly staff meetings, and form part of their regular staff training.

You should provide your staff and personnel, including subcontractors, guidance and briefings around handling of customer complaints. This is especially important for frontline and customer-facing roles, as well as uniformed staff. Training and policy awareness for your uniformed staff is just as important; their interactions with customers can ultimately have legal implications for your business. Why is this important now more than ever? We have seen throughout the pandemic and in recent times on social media that frustrated customers are using their phones to record interactions with companies and their staff, and videos may be admissible as evidence in a legal context and in court. A post or negative video about your company lasting no more than 30 seconds can go viral in a matter of a few hours.

Reminding uniformed staff about their behaviour when commuting to and from work when wearing your branded uniform is just as important. Afterall while they are wearing your uniform, they are representing your company image.

Confirmation letter

For issues which are not time sensitive and if the customer’s complaint requires further investigation beyond a reasonable timeframe, such as 14 days, confirm receipt of the customer’s complaint preferably by email. Emailing avoids the possible few day delay that you would expect by post.

If you are a small business you may choose to give your customer a call for that more personable approach and offer reassurance that you are taking their feedback seriously.

For serious complaints which have significant legal implications, such as matters related to personnel misconduct and health and safety, the advice would always be to respond in writing to avoid getting into an argument, misunderstandings or legal implications from  mistimed and misinformed admissions of fault.

When sending a letter or email confirming receipt of their complaint, send a link or attach a copy of your complaints procedure. Briefly outline approximately when the customer should expect a further update and who their point of contact for the complaint is.

Ideally you should ask the customer to include as much detail as possible, such as order number and date, and send a copy of any supporting evidence if applicable. This will allow you to cross-check your own internal records, interactions with the customer and make an informed decision about next steps.

Independence vs Credibility

A complaint should ideally be handled by someone independent and not related to the individual or area of your business that the complaint is regarding. This impacts on the credibility of the outcome and trust in your company. A complaint handler should familiarise themselves with how a company works, relevant policies, applicable UK law, internal staffing structure and each department’s general responsibilities. You will then know who to contact about a specific issue, which helps if you are working for a multinational company with many different departments or companies with head offices and regional locations. This can improve with how efficiently a complaint is dealt with and being able to thoroughly investigate with an understanding and knowledge of the operational side of the business.

Be sure to cross-check any past emails, letters and communications with the customer, including the correspondence with the customer about this transaction or order, if that is the case. Providing the customer with a different reason about why an order or issue was not quality checked or delivered on time, for example, can be embarrassing and lead to confusion.

Complaint handling should have transparency, honesty and your company’s values at its core. Covering up and failing to admit mistakes will only ultimately breed a culture of unaccountability, costly recurring mistakes, and a lack of trust from a customer’s perspective.

Tone and address

Think carefully about how you wish to address the customer when responding to their complaint. If you are a multinational or corporate company, using their title (such as Mr, Mrs or Ms) and surname along with a formal tone should be the standard template.

A small business replying to a regular customer who they have met before may choose to address them by their first name. This of course is dependent on the seriousness of their complaint.

Read to understand

Take the time to understand what went wrong from the customer’s perspective, who may have been involved or been on shift at the time to identify possible faults and improve working processes.

In one or two sentences summarise the customer’s complaint, repeating the subject and issue/s brought to your attention. This will help avoid confusion and allow the customer to clarify in a return letter should you have misread or misunderstood the matters flagged in their complaint.

Take the time to digest the customer’s complaint in its entirety, allowing you to understand and empathise for the issues and the customer’s personal circumstances.

Thanking the customer, empathise and offer apology

Thank the customer for their custom, patience in allowing you time to investigate and for taking the time to write to you about their negative experience.

“Thank you for email dated 1st January 2021. I am sorry to hear about your recent experience. We have received your complaint and will be investigating. I offer my apologies for any inconvenience caused during these very stressful times. We take all complaints very seriously. I will provide a further update in due course.”

Offering an apology does not necessarily have to be an admission of fault. Equally empathising for the customer’s personal circumstances can set a good personal tone. However if the cost to your business is minimal and if proven a service has not been delivered, the customer would typically appreciate your transparency and honesty in admitting a mistake.

“I am sorry to hear that you experienced issues with your order.” – indirect apologetic admission

“I would like to apologise about your order arriving faulty or damaged.” – direct apologetic admission

Offer reason for why things may have went wrong

Be it a staffing, infrastructure or technical issue, offer a reason or reasons for why things may not have gone as smoothly as intended. This will help the customer understand and nicely accompany your written apology.

The customer does not need to know about the intricacies of your day-to-day business. Explaining in a few sentences that it was a miscommunication at operational level, low staffing due to Covid-19, logistics issue due to stock or being a peak time for service, planned maintenance or simple human error, should be sufficient.

The above does of course depend on the complexity and seriousness of the complaint. Sure, the above will work for missed deliveries and service outages, among other issues. A complainant would wish to have a more lengthy response to a complaint about serious matters such as personnel misconduct, health and safety, equality and diversity issues, and also products bought of significant financial value. This is due to increased stress, anxiety, mental health and potential cause of injuries. Your response will ultimately reflect to the customer the time investment of your investigation into their complaint.

Provide point of contact

Providing the full contact details of the point of contact for the customer, or the complaint handler, in all communications is a must. Include their full name, job title, postal address, head office address and telephone numbers.

Resolution, Action and Signposting

This is the bit you should aim to finish on. Make it clear about how you will use the information the customer provided you about their experience to improve. Think the typical ones: quality assurance, additional staff training, infrastructure and technology upgrades, or disciplinary action (often reworded as staff training or a ‘reminder about our company’s values’). This is your chance to turn a negative into a positive, so finish it off on a positive note.

Signposting relevant charities and organisations that can help the customer may be appropriate. If required by law, industry or membership body, include details about the customer’s right of appeal and signposting independent complaint handling bodies, such as the IOPC for police officers’ conduct or the Financial Ombudsman Service for financial disputes.

Offering the customer a small incentive to return as a customer of your business, such as a gift voucher or merchandise (e.g. key ring), can often go a long way to make the customer feel special. However this may only be appropriate for the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors. Again, this very much depends on the seriousness, tone and nature of the customer’s complaint and if a satisfactory outcome has been reached.

Proofread

Before pressing send or slipping the letter into an envelope make sure you proofread your letter. Triple check tone, spelling mistakes, avoid jargon and acronyms that may alienate the customer etc. Include the date the letter was produced and use your company email or letter template. A badly written formal letter or email with spelling mistakes and typos will set a bad first impression, as you may have never dealt with this customer before.

Conclusion

Be sure to record the complaint with security, privacy, confidentiality and data protection in mind. Complaints should be handled in private, so complaints received over social media should be signposted to your complaints procedure policy. Although some complaints received over social media can usually be resolved informally without a formal process.

The format, style and contents of a complaint are transferable across both private and public sector, regardless of industry. Your conflict resolution skills in listening to the customer or taking the time to understand what happened, where and when, and why, can go a long way to improving your business outputs.

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