Rebecca BrownRebecca BrownMarch 5, 2020
man-1082887_1280-1280x885.jpg

23min833

Anyone who has worked in the complaint handling industry will tell you that like any job, there are good and bad days.

What isn’t like most other jobs is the emotional weight placed on a complaint handler when they have a 40-minute call with someone who alternates between swearing and shouting, and apologising and crying because they feel bad for shouting, and then back to shouting because they feel embarrassed they cried…

Have you ever thought about how you would describe what you do, to someone who had no idea what a complaint handler was or had never even heard of it as a concept?
Picture this: You meet an alien, they have just arrived on earth but speak perfect English. In their world they don’t have business, or transactions – they simply have all they need already. They ask you what you do. On a very basic level, you might say something like “I speak to unhappy people all day, and try to make them happy again.”
They’d very likely think you were some kind of superhero, right?

If we look at the other industries that this description could also be applied to, I think we notice something quite interesting. In industries where there are a lot of intense emotional interactions, and where the relationship could be described as helper/recipient, we already know that there is a high risk of burnout.

Burnout: a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.

This is an area that has been explored extensively in relation to talking therapies, nursing and teaching – but not for complaint resolution.

I remember my very first role in complaint handling. I fell into it by accident, and tried to quit after two months – determined I’d never listen to an irate customer again.

Luckily for me, my boss at the time talked me round, listened to my concerns, and got me the support that I needed to be able to run an effective complaint handling department without becoming overwhelmed again. I owe him a huge amount, as choosing not to walk away from complaint handling led me to learn to love helping customers and the passion I feel for excellent Customer Experience today.

I once asked someone in an interview for a complaint handling role how she let off steam after a particularly complex complaint handling day with her previous team. She smiled and said “we had a box room, we just used to go and kick boxes”.

We all laughed, but she wasn’t actually joking. Stress is no joke.

Nearly half a million people in the UK have work-related stress at a level that makes them feel ill. – Bupa

Let’s examine the facts.

1. We are increasingly urged to empathise, to look at the human aspect of a complaint

Having been at the receiving end of many escalated complaints, I can confirm that it’s not uncommon for customers to bring unrelated emotional issues to the table.

Often the complaint is the straw that broke the camel’s back, and they are quite relieved to be able to get everything out to a complete stranger over the phone. A customer opening up about their particularly tough week, or their partner having recently been made redundant is often a sign we have done our jobs properly, shown empathy, and broken down the defensive barriers to enable us to get to the heart of what the complaint is really about.

At the time this helps lend context to a complaint, I can’t help wondering if we are paying the toll to help our customers deal with their own emotions?

2. The average complaint handler will be expected to speak to anywhere between 15 and 50 customers a week.

That means that even at the lower end of this scale, they will have spoken to almost a thousand individuals a year.

Most counsellors restrict the number of clients they see at any one time, and how many sessions they have in a week. Whilst it is certainly the case that complex emotions often bubble over into anger, most professional counsellors don’t have to deal with verbal abuse on a weekly basis as is often the case for a complaint handler. Yet they still have practices in place to ensure that any vicarious trauma they experience is resolved in a healthy way.

3. We are encouraged to speak professionally about customers at all times

If we are to ensure that customers get our respect, and that we continue to empathise, then we need to stop referring to them in any way that allows us to subconsciously see them as not deserving of an impartial complaint investigation and help to resolve their issue, (my recent article on learning to love complaints deals with this area in more detail) but that leave us with a new problem, which is – who do complaint handlers complain to?

We don’t want to go home and vent our frustrations at our spouses or children (something I can admit to on more than one occasion). We don’t take our frustrations out on our customers – obviously that would be highly inappropriate and negate the whole point of the customer service industry.

We don’t take our frustrations out on our colleagues, they have a tough time too and we are in the trenches together – the camaraderie won’t allow anything to bubble over, or in theory that’s the culture we encourage.

So is it time to look at how we cleanse the potentially toxic resentments inherent to complaint handling, as opposed to letting them out in an explosive, unpredictable way and potentially damaging those we care about?

So what can we do? And most importantly, what should all good employers do?

We can start by acknowledging that burnout is a real thing, and that anyone who understands complaint handling can see that if it applies to counselling, psychotherapy, and teaching, it definitely applies to complaint handling.

We have a duty to safeguard our employees, that is not debatable.

One potential approach is what we refer to at Think Wow as ‘The Tripod’.

A tripod is the ultimate stable structure. It can never wobble, even when on an uneven surface. We think it’s the perfect random item to influence a support culture.

We like to think that if we start to address the emotional needs of our staff, with a three legged approach, your team will reach a similar level of stability.

Immediate needs

Nothing feels worse than reaching out to genuinely try to help someone only to have them become aggressive, confrontational, or verbally abusive.

No matter how much we may try to increase our resilience against such attacks, our natural instinct towards fight or flight takes over. When we feel attacked, we feel unsafe. This triggers a neurological response that actually makes it harder for us to think, and even to see.

We are no longer in a good place to try and structure sentences, which can make us trip over our words and make an already stressful situation far worse. The result is that we put the phone down and feel emotional, shaken – even scared. If we are unlucky and we work in a particularly busy environment we may even have to get straight back on the phone.

Implement the ‘cup of tea rule’

The ‘cup of tea rule’ encourages two things.

Firstly, it encourages team members to take note when a colleague is clearly on one of those calls. Once they have spotted a colleague is struggling, they should go and get them a hot drink of their choice as a show of solidarity, a kind gesture and to help with the inevitable dry mouth that comes from high stress situations.

Then make it mandatory for that call handler to take at least a ten-minute tea break to calm their nerves and get back on an even keel before picking the phone up again. By making it mandatory you reduce the risk that people will consider taking a break to recover their emotional wellbeing as something that is not an accepted part of the culture.

Short-term needs

If we recognise that dealing with complaints on a daily basis may well have a cumulative effect – and result in stressors that increase rather than ebb and flow in direct correlation to work load – it becomes apparent that we need to offer our teams a way to vent.

Implement a buddy system akin to counsellor supervision sessions, but with the sole purpose to let a staff member discuss any particularly challenging customers, and speak their mind about how they felt at the time.

There are some guidelines for how these should work.

1. The buddy must never be a line manager or supervisor, but a peer who understands the challenges the staff member faces

2. Any discussion about a particular customer should be anonymised – refer to the customer as ‘the customer’ only.

3. This should be a weekly occurrence behind closed doors – it must be confidential in nature so the staff member can feel free to get anything troubling them off their chest.

Long-term needs

If your company is large enough and has the budget, consider investing in talking therapies for complaint handlers on a semi-regular basis.

Proactive management of emotions can prevent damage to mental health, and can often benefit the business in a reduction of sick days, better performance, and lower staff turnover. Ultimately, it shows you care.

Invest in hiring enough people to comfortably handle complaints. If we can stop seeing complaints as a negative, and instead look at the massive opportunity they represent for our long-term CX strategy, then it’s just common sense to ensure this part of our businesses is adequately resourced.

Taking the time pressures out of the equation for our team reduces stress and ensures a higher quality experience for any customer who has already been feeling let down (certain organisations now implement a minimum call time target as opposed to a maximum, to encourage call handlers to get to the heart of the issue and give the customer a high-quality service).

Regardless of whether you have a large budget or not, you should make it a top priority to increase learning that can help protect your team.

Have a manager look at every single call where a customer became aggressive or abusive. Were there any training tools that the call handler could have benefitted from that would have enabled a calmer discussion?

Could manager intervention sooner have turned things down a notch?

If there is anything that can be done in the wider organisation to ensure customers don’t feel so let down in the first instance, then this should be shared too and the whole business should make it a priority to protect the complaint handling team.

After all, often it’s the other way around.


Rebecca BrownRebecca BrownFebruary 4, 2020
heart-1077724_1920-1280x919.jpg

11min2559

‘Complaint’ has traditionally been seen as a dirty word; whispered within organisations and one that most senior staff would have done anything to avoid admitting applied to them.

The negative connotations that came with complaints meant that for years, anyone wishing to create or grow a complaint handling team was likely to come up against misconceptions such as:

“If we need more staff to handle complaints then we clearly have big issues!”

or

“We can’t call the customer support team complaint handlers – it makes it look like we have unhappy customers!”

I can almost feel the collective eye roll of hundreds of Customer Experience and customer service professionals who have had to battle against just that type of mindset.

The great news is that the business world is steadily waking up to the power of harnessing complaints to drive continuous improvement. No longer is it frowned upon to admit you get complaints, or that you require a dedicated team to deal with them.

In fact, companies such as Octopus Energy are leading the way by being totally transparent about their complaint statistics. They have nothing to hide, and they want to let their customer base know just how important improving the customer experience is to their whole team.

Interestingly, Octopus Energy have also reported a huge surge in their customer base – in just nine months they managed to go from 600,000 customers to 1.35 million. During this period of intense growth, their complaint statistics remained steady with only a minor increase in issues reported per 100,000 customers.

Despite the increase in forward-thinking companies like Octopus rising to the top, Salesforce recently reported that 91 percent of customers who are unhappy with a brand will simply leave without complaining. They also listed that only one in 26 unhappy customers are likely to raise a complaint.

At the same time, the UK Customer Satisfaction Index dropped for the fourth consecutive year. What this amounts to is that often the first you learn of a customer being unhappy is when they switch to the competition – if you even notice at all!

No alt text provided for this image

So, accepting that complaints are a necessary evil is not enough. We need to take it one step further. The businesses who consistently wow their customers understand that complaints are fantastic, and if we can learn to fall in love with them too, we as a nationwide Customer Experience industry can reverse this trend.

There are several steps you can take today to help your team love complaints:

1. Discourage your team referring to a customer as ‘complaining’

If you search the term ‘complaining meaning’ in a popular search engine, you get the following result:

noun

the expression of dissatisfaction or annoyance about something.

“his complaining has been a little bit annoying”

Meanwhile, a quick look at an online thesaurus returns grumbling, bellyaching, moaning, and whining as synonyms of the word complaining.

This perfectly sums up why the use of ‘complaining’ within a complaint handling team is so corrosive. As a word, it has negative connotations and anyone using it to describe a customer is subliminally giving themselves permission to see that customer as a nuisance.

Instead, let’s just refer to them as what they are – an unhappy customer.

They may have raised a complaint – a factual statement – but when you stop referring to them as complaining you have taken the first step towards respecting your customer and their right to raise a genuine grievance. This simple change in approach eventually helps a team to feel more empathy towards unhappy customers, and this leads to greater satisfaction during – and after – the complaint handling process for both customer and employee.

2. Ditch the idea that there is such a thing as an ‘unfounded complaint’

How many times have you heard a complaint handler or a colleague express their frustration over an unjustified or unfounded complaint?

It doesn’t seem fair does it? You have to spend your time investigating that complaint, even when you know the customer has just misunderstood the proposition, or had too high an expectation of what would happen, right?

Wrong.

In order to truly embrace complaints as a driver for change, we need to accept that we have full accountability for our Customer Experience. We are in a position where we understand our business model explicitly.

We know what our purchasing process is, what can cause delays, and what the product offering is. Most customers will never spend as much time on our websites as we do. We are the experts and it is our obligation to ensure we arm our customers with enough easily digestible, intuitive information that they never have the opportunity to misunderstand, or expect anything other than what we will deliver.

If we set out to explain ourselves clearly and we understand that our customer is not the expert in our business, then we can ensure that any negative review or expression of dissatisfaction is looked at with absolute objectivity. How can we ensure that the customer understands something better in the future, or what can we change in our process to make sure there is no room for concern or uncertainty for our customers?

3. Set yourself the highest standards

When you count your complaints, don’t be tempted to lie to yourself. Just because it didn’t contain the word complaint, or because it didn’t come through an officially recognised complaint channel, does not mean it is not a complaint.

If a customer has expressed dissatisfaction in any way then they should be counted, contacted, and learned from. Take it one step further – if your business model aims to delight customers, then consider anything less than a full five-star review an expression of dissatisfaction.

Sure, you might speak to the odd customer who confirms they actually did love their experience, they just hate to give out top marks for anything. You also might just learn the secret ingredient you have been missing all along.

4. Learn from every single complaint that comes your way

Don’t just collect stats.

So many companies are data-rich, information-poor. There are tools out there that provide the exact analytics you need to spot complaint trends, and enable proactive interactions that can inform your business and ensure that the volume of complaints you receive genuinely gets smaller over time – while your loyal customer base (and revenue) grows.

Make it policy that each person responding to a complaint should suggest two things that could have prevented the complaint arising in the first place. Some of your best insight comes from the experts in your team and you know that they will feel more empowered and engaged if they have been involved in the change process.

So, stop seeing complaints as the enemy and give this approach a try. Embrace the subtle changes with enthusiasm and see how you feel about complaints in a few months’ time.

Who knows, this could be the start of a beautiful relationship!




Inform. Inspire. Include.
A free way to improve your business.

Customer Experience Magazine is the online magazine packed full of industry news, blogs, features, reports, case studies, video bites and international stories all focusing on customer experience.


CONTACT US

CALL US ANYTIME


UK Trademark UK00002648900

EUIPO Trademark 018131832

Contact Information

For article submissions:
Editor
Paul Ainsworth
paul@cxm.co.uk

For general inquiries, advertising and partnership information:
aleksandar@awardsinternational.com
Tel: 0207 1932 428

For Masterclass enquiries:
vuk@awardsinternational.com
Tel: +44 20 86385584

Customer Experience Magazine Limited
Company number: 12450532
International House, 24 Holborn Viaduct,
United Kingdom, London, England, EC1A 2BN

JOBS IN CUSTOMER SUPPORT

Find a job in customer support with Jobsora


Newsletter