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Sorry seems to be the hardest word…

By April 24, 2019April 8th, 2020Leadership

Complaints are a reality of working life.  Whether they come from a customer, a colleague, a supporter or any other key contact, we are never going to get it right every time.  If the thought of a less than delighted email, a stroppy phone call, or a furrowed brow face-to-face meeting leaves you less than excited, it’s worth remembering that a complaint made shows a modicum of care.  People who complain to us do so because they want to see a wrong (perceived or otherwise) put right, so normal service can resume.  Be brave and treat it as an invitation to improve services and relationships.

Sometimes the only thing that sets you apart from your competitors is the way you deal with people and issues when they go wrong.  There’s a balance to be struck here.  If you’ve made a bit of a mess, you need to admit the error and put it right, but without becoming subservient or rolling in the dirt.  If you didn’t get it wrong, something still happened to trigger the complaint so equally you need to act to restore or rebuild relationships

Here are 5 tips to help you find the right balance when dealing with complaints:

  1. Respond quickly to acknowledge the complaint, by email or telephone.  You are not acting at this stage, just acknowledging receipt.  It shows respect and avoids escalation.  It’s like the waiter who shows you he knows you want the bill even if he can’t get over to you yet, versus the one who studiously avoids your eyes and gestures.  Let people know you’ll be back to them very soon but allow yourself some thinking time.
  2. Once in conversation, work hard to really listen and not second guess.  Conversations (even email ones) involving conflict are stressful and the temptation is to be thinking about what you are going to say in response, which means you risk missing the main points.  Try to stay calm, slow it down and really take in what is being said to you.
  3. Separate content and tone.  People who complain are never happy, and the tone is likely to reflect this.  Getting hung up on the tone will only distract you from the content.  Ask yourself “What are they actually saying here?” and separate that from how it is being said.
  4. Acknowledge what has been said in a genuine way.  This is otherwise known as “rolling with the punch”.  It is what you say to form a bridge between the complaint and what happens next.  They need to see that you can put yourself in their position and see it their way even if your position is different.  Wording is everything here.  Irritants like “I hear what you say” are usually said by people who clearly haven’t and they only serve to inflame.  “I see what you mean” or “I can appreciate how frustrating this was” or “Thank you for getting in touch about this” may be better.
  5. We need to deal with the “s word”.  So terrorised are we by court action, we have lost the ability to say sorry.  Unless you have been advised against it, saying sorry when you’ve got it wrong is genuine and powerful.  Even if you’re not to blame, it’s reasonable to say sorry that upset has been caused.  It’s also important to say sorry without blame.  If the mistake is an organisational or departmental one, you are the one dealing with it, you should be the one saying sorry on behalf of others.  It follows the thinking that everyone is a marketeer and how you deal with this situation paves the way for others.  And a final word on saying sorry.  You need to do it right.  Stating anything that begins with the words “I’m sorry that you feel we have….” Is not saying sorry!  It’s a veiled way of saying – the problem is yours.

After that it is all about moving forward.  Give reasons why something happened if you’re able.  Reasons aren’t excuses – they’re explanations and they can help.  Then move to put things right.  What would they be happy with?  What would you be happy with?  What will be done and how will you stay in touch?  Consider your own experiences as a consumer.  Some of our best relationships develop out of a wrong being put right in a way that exceeded our expectations.  If a complaint is handled well, it’s an opportunity to win over a tricky colleague, turn a client in to one of your greatest advocates and enhance your reputation through others telling people how well you dealt with a difficulty.

At Sharpstone Skinner we work with teams and individuals on assertive and positive ways to maintain good customer and colleague relations and provide expert help on dealing with situations that may involve conflict. 

It may not be happiest part of your day, but if handled well a complaint can lead to better ways of working and turn foes in to fans.  If nothing else, it’s preferable in the long run that they’re saying it to you rather than about you.