In support the most value is created by reducing unpleasant surprises. It's better to meet customer expectations consistently than to exceed them every once in awhile.

John Goodman, author of Strategic Customer Service, describes this as support’s contribution to “doing the right job right the first time.” Customer complaints, he says, should be seen as a source of learning, putting teams in a position to prevent future problems instead of just reacting to current ones.

Feedback should drive your customer experience strategy

Goodman’s ongoing research around complaints has uncovered a number of principles that are broadly true across industries. Here are two we’ll examine today:

1. Companies who solve for cause and effect have more loyal customers. Support can and should solve systemic issues in addition to individual customer problems. For this to happen, they need “a seat at the table” to share what they’re seeing. Fixing a recurring problem often saves money, but it also frees up time to have more productive conversations, which can be just as valuable.

2. Most customers won’t say anything; those who do are forgiving. Perhaps you’ve seen some version of the “complaints iceberg” before. The exact percentages vary by industry but the underlying point stays the same: upset customers tend to brood in silence, unless the problem has cost them money. Fortunately, customers who contact support are quite forgiving if you can quickly fix their problem.

will customers with problems buy from you again? Data from a consumer survey lead by John Goodman and conducted by TARP Worldwide, results published in Strategic Customer Service

As Jay Baer rightfully states in Hug Your Haters, any concerns you may have about receiving complaints pales in comparison to the impact of the silent majority; or, those customers who had a poor experience but chose not to say anything. The problems you don’t know about are the most crippling because you aren’t able to fix them.

With that in mind, let’s look at a few core questions to consider when using complaints to find and fix faults in your customer experience.

1. Are we drawing out customers’ real problems?

When helping an upset customer you’re really juggling multiple responsibilities: solving their issue, replying in a timely manner, and teasing out the mistake that caused them to contact you (if one exists). The customer only cares about the resolution — whoever said juggling was easy? But you’ll need to identify the source of certain problems if you plan on using complaints to their full potential. Here are a pair of questions to consider:

Have you de-escalated the conversation? As Jeremey DuVall notes, upset customers are driven by the emotion caused by their current problem; they aren’t always in the best position to give level-headed feedback (although emotional responses can result in insightful commentary). You need to put out the fumes before you can search for the point of ignition.

Do you understand what they were trying to do? Emily has written before that not every customer will serve up their motivations for doing something. It’s easy to fire off a reply telling customers “you can’t do that,” or that a certain action isn’t possible, but you won’t learn why they were trying to in the first place. Dig deeper before being dismissive.

You’ll also have to intuit certain unspoken problems. A good example is when a customer contacts you after reading help content: if they were trying to get something done on their own, what caused them to stop reading and ask for help? Perhaps the content is confusing, or incomplete.

customer conversation

Lastly, it’s a good practice now and then to take stock of how easy it is for customers to contact you. You need to consider your team’s current capabilities: at the far ends of open invitation (no help docs, chat everywhere, etc.) you run the risk of inbox overload and burnout. As a safety net, you can make your contact page welcoming and easily accessible, or use tools like Beacon to offer help where customers need it most.

2. What solution can we feasibly offer?

As much as you might want to, you can’t fix every problem right away; there’s always more to be done than can be done this instant. Many issues, however, can be temporarily solved with less cost- or time-intensive means by considering the following:

  • Should we stick to replies? For issues that are minor annoyances or that affect an incredibly small subset of customers, you may be better off replying for the time being. Running every single issue up the ladder is the same as labeling all of your to-do’s as “High Priority.”
  • Can we teach a workaround? Occasionally, like when a customer is waiting on a new feature or is using your product in an unconventional way, you can teach them about an alternative solution or a potential workaround, especially as a short-term fix.
  • Do we just need to fix the problem? Of course, sometimes the only fix is an actual fix. You’ll probably need engineering and product support, making this the most costly solution. But if you can offer justifiable reasons, these fixes will have the biggest impact.

For the latter, you'll probably need pertinent details to clearly define the 'why' to relevant stakeholders. Let’s explore that in more detail.

3. Do we know the cost of the problem?

Justin previously shared why a dual approach — pairing your good judgement and knowledge of sentiment with impartial data — can be the most effective way to keep everyone grounded and get the right things fixed.

Knowing an issue is causing headaches is easy for the support team; they hear about it all the time in the queue. But support can help other departments understand problems in ways that justify action (e.g., by determining the upside of a potential fix). The questions will vary, but the end goal is always to reduce ambiguity: How many customers have run into trouble? How much revenue does that represent? Have we received more complaints over time? Is this problem especially troublesome for VIP customers? Is it a security concern?

Getting a grip on the situation by using sentiment and data in tandem is useful for both support and stakeholders, because it’s hard to prioritize on instinct alone.

4. Did we actually fix the problem?

Never start a fire you don’t mean to tend. Whether support or another team is responsible, you have to confirm an implemented fix has first, genuinely solved the problem, and second, not created any unexpected new ones. Your support update is a good time to share this with the company at large.

No service necessary

Using complaints to fix root causes reminds me of a story told by philosopher Lao Tzu of a gifted healer, whose empathy and skill enabled him to find and treat maladies before they could spread. He was always less requested than his siblings; their inexperience allowed sickness to overtake their patients before they could finally cure them. Worse treatment, better showmanship.

I'd say this quote from Futurama rings true: "When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all."

Gregory Ciotti

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is on the Growth team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk that helps you build a company your customers love with more human, more helpful customer support tools.