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Winning & Losing: Part 2

Manage customer complaint damage by putting a defined, proactive process into place.


In Part 1 of this column (March 2013), I addressed the principles of cooperation and empathy as effective strategies when confronted with customer complaints.

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To wrap up this topic, this article focuses on the importance and effectiveness of being proactive in your customer complaint interactions.

First and foremost, being “proactive” means being prepared. The best companies don’t simply react to customer complaints as they occur, they strategize and prepare for situations of customer dissatisfaction before they happen.

To understand the concept, recognize that this is precisely the process renowned medical institutions employ to manage patient care. When a doctor’s patient (his or her customer) passes away, this is understandably the worse outcome or, put in context, customer experience.


When this happens, not only does the doctor who was in charge of the deceased patient go in front of the medical institution’s board, but all doctors in that department attend to provide their professional feedback and opinions. This process is called a “Post-Mor­tem Review.” The objective of this meeting is two-fold: to determine what (if anything) went wrong, and to arrive at a consensus for future treatment of like patient situations.

The Ritz-Carlton employs a remarkably similar approach in managing customer complaints. All guest problems/complaints are evaluated to determine the best way to respond to ensure that the customer is exceptionally pleased with the outcome. The results are documented in a Quality Control Manual that contains the potential problem/complaint and what is considered to be the best way to deal with each specific situation.


According to Ritz-Carlton, there are approximately 1,000 customer problems and appropriate resolutions currently in the manual. Each employee refers to this guide to resolve guest problems/complaints and ultimately provide a consistent customer experience across the corporation’s global locations.

Southwest Airlines utilizes a similar proactive method in managing its customer complaints. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Southwest Airlines has the lowest rate of complaints of any major U.S. carrier. The company achieves this by employing an uncommon strategy – it responds to bad customer experiences before complaints are made using three components:
1) Sincere Apology: If any employee deems that there has been an undesirable customer experience, a sincere apology is made immediately. Over and above simply saying “sorry” face-to-face, a written apology is generated and sent to the customer, normally by email and always within 24 hours.
2) Brief Explanation: The second component is a brief explanation of Southwest’s understanding of what happened – the circumstances that created the less-than-perfect custo­mer experience. This acknowledgement is vital; by reiterating the situation back to the customer, the customer feels like the company is paying attention and truly cares.
3) Gift: The final component of the company’s proactive customer complaint process is a gift. At the conclusion of the written apology, a gift is offered to make up for the problem, usually a voucher the customer can redeem on his next Southwest flight.


Exceeding Expectations
The “gift,” as Southwest Airlines puts it, is vital to the success of the overall complaint/resolution process. If Southwest simply performed steps 1 and 2 without the added gift, then it would likely end up with customers that return to a satisfied (pre-complaint/­problem) position. But by go­ing above and beyond with the add­ition of a gift, Southwest ensures the customer is not only satisfied with the problem resolution, but impressed with the company’s care overall.

Taking a step further toward positive customer complaint resolution, note the following Customer Complaint Action Items:
• Stay calm: Don’t get angry, even if the customer is. It is not always easy to stay calm, especially if the customer is angry about something you had no control over, or when you believe they are incorrect in their accusation.
• Acknowledge the importance of the customer: Before the customer explains the details of the problem, let them know their satisfaction is your highest priority. Tell them you are there to help.
• Release the hounds: Get out of the way and ease customers’ frustration by allowing them to blow off some steam and vent.
• Don’t take it personally: Listen rationally; don’t get defensive. Remember, it’s never about you. It’s about the customer.
• Demonstrate empathy: Put your­self in their shoes and be a partner in solving their problem. Say something like, “If I felt like that happened to me, I would feel the same way.”
• Practice active listening: Ask clarifying questions to completely understand the customer’s situation and demonstrate your care and concern. Without interrupting the customer, repeat back the situation as you understand it.
• Write it down: Taking notes demonstrates what the customer is saying is important to you and that
you’re taking their concern seriously.
• Be proactive: Take ownership of the situation and demonstrate action: “I’ll see to it that we take care of this right away.”
• Resolve to solve: Above all, make sure the customer leaves feeling as you would want to feel if you were the customer. If you would not be completely satisfied with the resolution, start over.
The lesson for tire and auto service personnel is clear: Be prepared and know your customer complaint strategy in advance. That way, when encountering customers’ bad experiences or complaints, you can be responsive, create consistency and provide resolutions that provide the best outcome for your customers – and your business.  

Steve Ferrante, CEO of Sale Away LLC, is the producer and host of the Pinnacle Performance sales and customer service training program for the tire/auto service industry. He can be reached at 866-721-6086 ext. 701 or [email protected]

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