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Angry Customers: A CEO's Best Spies

Want to know which of your employees are doing a bang-up job, and which are falling down on it? Take a few calls from irate customers. They'll let you know.

image courtesy nori 832 http://norikonatsume.com/

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None of us like complainers. And entrepreneurs especially dislike complainers that also happen to be customers.

Whether customers lob complaints by email, by phone or in person, the hope is that if we put the customer off, they will calm down, go away or become someone else’s problem. That may indeed happen, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Taking the time to listen to angry customers can offer insight that you can’t gain anywhere else.

As a CEO, I learned to always take calls from angry customers, even if they interrupted meetings. It was often a time-consuming and very uncomfortable task. But the insight I gained was invaluable. Listening to the malcontents is the very best way to know if employees are treating your customers well. By taking the time to hear customers, who usually have pretty valid complaints, I was able to identify more employee problems than I did by any other means. These poor, frustrated souls helped me identify issues that I had few other ways of knowing.

Here’s what can happen if you don’t take these calls yourself: A customer called my company about a missing part to an expensive product. They were beyond aggravated and wanted the issue resolved immediately. My employee said, “I understand the problem, but it will take a fair amount of time to fix.  It’s now 4:45, and I get off at 5:00.  It will take me more than fifteen minutes to resolve. I think it’s best if you called us back tomorrow.” 

I am not making this up.

Predictably, the customer became angrier. Another employee overheard the call, stepped in, and had the call transferred to me. I apologized on behalf of the company, figured out what the problem was, and brought in a more conscientious employee to help. Together, we made sure the missing part shipped overnight. 

I considered myself lucky to learn about my problem employee when I did. Short of eavesdropping on every inbound call, I couldn’t possibly have found out about this incident through any other means.

By taking every angry call that came in, I also learned about other employees who were inconsiderate to customers or vendors or who were frankly just not competent. I couldn’t be everywhere or see everything. But listening to those angry customers increased my reach and vision dramatically.

In a world where customers can instantly tweet, rate or post their dissatisfaction with your company, it’s even more important for entrepreneurs to heed customer complaints and respond quickly. Obviously, no business can survive without customers. That makes it your job to keep current customers happy, and yes, to deal with the angry ones yourself.

 

Last updated: Dec 2, 2011

DON RAINEY | Columnist | General Partner, Grotech Ventures

Don Rainey is a General Partner with Grotech Ventures, which invests in early stage technology companies. He was named to the Washingtonian Magazine Tech Titans List and earned the Northern Virginia Technology Council?s Lifetime Navigator award for his support of entrepreneurs. Don blogs at VC in DC at http://startups.typepad.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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