Richard K. Murray & Skylar H. Christensen
While this old saying may apply to affairs of the heart, it does not apply to disputes. As a mediator/arbitrator, one of the issues I hear raised by plaintiffs in almost every case is “Why did they take so long to resolve this?” This issue is perceived by plaintiffs as either a strategy to wear them down in hopes they will just go away or a sign of disrespect. In either case it galvanizes the plaintiffs’ resolve that they were wronged and should not compromise on the resolution they seek. In other words they become cemented in their position. In the mediation setting this becomes one more issue to be resolved before the two parties can move toward a settlement. In arbitration it is one more issue that needs to be addressed in the decision. Where a dispute becomes so emotionally charged that it cannot be addressed through mediation or arbitration, the plaintiff may seek formal litigation. Civil litigation is not well suited to the resolution of routine business disputes due to the complicated procedures involved and the public nature of lawsuits. Thus, by failing to address the complaint at the earliest possible stage, a small business may lose a golden opportunity for alternative dispute resolution and risk an expensive, cumbersome and very public lawsuit. The unfortunate thing is that this issue should rarely if ever come up if a business has a formalized, informal complaint management process.
What do I mean by a formalized, informal complaint management process? Well for most small businesses the number of customer complaints is relatively small, so a complex, expensive complaint management process as found in large corporations with many locations is counterproductive to the culture most small businesses are trying to achieve. There are, however, some specific, formal, steps every small business should take to manage their customer complaints.
1. Develop a database in which every customer complaint or concern is listed. This can be as simple as a word file with a master complaint record to which every employee has access. Whenever an employee receives a complaint or concern they open the master record and fills in the relevant information and saves the document in the complaint folder using the customer’s last name and date the complaint was received. Information that should be gathered about every complaint includes the customer’s name, contact information (phone and e-mail), the nature of the complaint and the resolution desired by the customer.
2. Every employee has two business days to resolve the complaint or it has to be sent to their boss. This ensures that complaints are handled quickly and if the employee doesn’t have the power to resolve the complaint it goes up the chain of command until it reaches someone with the power to resolve it. Further each person who touches the complaint records their actions on the complaint record. These actions include when they received the complaint from their subordinate, what they did to investigate/resolve the complaint and when they passed the complaint to their boss, if required.
3. Once the complaint reaches the owner and the customer cannot be satisfied turn the complaint over to a formal dispute resolution process, like the one offered by your Better Business Bureau. The BBB Dispute Resolution Program is staffed by individuals who are objective third parties trained in dispute resolution techniques including mediation and arbitration. These objective third parties add credibility to your commitment to resolve customer complaints quickly and show that you value your customers.
4. Once resolved the owner should follow-up on every complaint to ensure the complaint was actually resolved and that the customer is as satisfied as possible.
With these formalized steps in place you can have a responsive informal complaint management process that is not a burden to your business but one that your customers will appreciate.
Sources of Further Information:
Barlow J. Moller C. & Hsieh T (2008) A Complaint is a Gift: Recovering Customer Loyalty When Things Go Wrong, Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Blackshaw P. (2008) Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World, Broadway Business.
Rick is the Executive Director of the Dispute Resolution Center of the Northwest. Questions and comments about this article can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Skylar is a graduate of the University of Idaho Law and a staff member with the Dispute Resolution Center of the Northwest, completing his mediation and arbitration certificates.