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Why I Love When Customers Complain

How an open-minded approach to negative feedback boosts earnings--and morale.

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Yesterday, I spent 40 minutes on the phone listening to a customer tell me all the things that could be better with three of the products he received among the many in his order. Why spend so much time listening to someone who is unhappy, and just wants to complain, you might ask?  Was it really a good use of my time? Could I not have cut the call short, at the very least? The answer is yes.  I could have ended the call sooner, but I chose not to.

It was important to my customer to tell me his thoughts.  He took time out of his day to call because he wanted our products to serve him better.  During that time, he could have been working on sales to his own customers, training his employees, or handling his business’ finances—all of which are way more important to his survival as a business owner than calling me to criticize certain aspects of my products.

And yet, he was willing to put aside all the other crucial duties he needed to accomplish to talk to me, so I felt I owed it to him to listen.  Why let it go on for so long then?  I have learned (as much as it pains my get-things-done sensibilities) that, sometimes, you should let things unfold on their own time.  Had I rushed my customer, he might not have been able to share with me the important everyday happenings in our industry that he sees from the opposite side of the street.

His insider information clues me in to new products available in our market, hard-to-spot changes he sees happening in the industry, and of course his experience in dealing not just with my company but with my competitors.  Thus, my choice to listen was a judicious one.  It gave me competitor intel, highlighted needs I could create products to fill in a changing market, and gave me the chance to connect with a customer to let him know that I valued his time as much as he valued the chance to bend my ear. But all of that was the easy part of spending 40 minutes on the phone with him.

The real reason for his call was that he was unhappy with some of my products. No business owner wants to hear that. In fact, many take umbrage at having to listen to a customer complain. I know a lot of business owners who get short-tempered, exasperated, or defensive with customers calling to complain—and maybe if it happened everyday and was indicative of a bigger problem with my company, I would, too.  But, I try to see it differently. 

When a customer criticizes one of my products, I make it into an opportunity.  I tell myself to listen as I would want to be listened to if I were the customer. I stop what I am doing, and I take notes.  Then I ask questions to learn more.  First, I question my customer to make sure I’ve understood how my company and my products can be better. Then I ask myself—as honestly as possible—is the customer right? Could I make the change he wants? If I did, would my product serve its purpose better? In so doing, would it become valuable to more people? Don’t get me wrong, the answer to these questions is not always yes. Sometimes a change is specific to the needs of one customer, not many, and is, therefore, not cost effective. Sometimes, the change is just not feasible from a technical point of view.  But sometimes it is.   

Many of our best products are products that we evolved using customer feedback. My company has earned a stellar reputation with customers not only because of the excellence of our products, but also for the way we handle products that could be better. My willingness to admit when something is wrong and to try changing it has not only been good for my bottom line, but also for team morale. Our sales reps answer the phone with openness and listen as carefully to our customers as I do—because they know that we consider feedback of any kind to be valuable rather than threatening.  So the next time you think about cutting a disgruntled customer’s complaint short, stop and think what you could gain if you listened, carefully.

Last updated: Nov 11, 2011

VANESSA MERIT NORNBERG | President, Metal Mafia

In 2004, Vanessa Merit Nornberg opened Metal Mafia, a wholesale body and costume jewelry company that sells to more than 5,000 specialty shops and retail chains in 23 countries. Metal Mafia was an Inc. 500 company in 2009.




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