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A New Way To Handle Complaints, Or Is It?

What a lot of money we have been wasting on dealing with customer complaints.

Instead of dealing with them and attempting to satisfy the customer we should create a process that makes complaining so difficult then when customers complain they get such a huge negative experience and never receive any satisfaction.

They will think very hard before they complain again.

This approach is working already.

Fifteen Years ago I moved up to the West Coast of Scotland. After three years of the Highlands I decided to make it my permanent home and settled down to live in the most beautiful imaginable spot on the shores of Loch Long.

In the mornings I would lie in bed and listen to the radio, gently smiling at the all the roads in England that were listed almost daily as the announcer plunged again and again through the litany of names that spelled delays and frustration for millions of trapped motorists.

I had lived in Surrey and then Bedfordshire and one of the principal reasons for getting away was to avoid the frustrations caused by the movement of large numbers of people that were a permanent feature of living in this overcrowded corner of England.

I felt quite smug to have got away but last year cruel circumstance forced me back to within commuting distance of London.

The first thing I decided was that any trips to London would be on the train. I had spent too long laughing at the travel news to believe that it would ever be possible to penetrate inside the M25 in a car.

On my first trip to London I got a lift to the station. It was only fifteen minutes, then I stood on the platform waiting for the train. There was a train due every fifteen minutes and after about ten minutes one arrived.

Travel time was to be an hour so I sat down to read some proofs. As the train got closer to London it filled up until the announcer declared that the train was full and would not now stop until it arrived in London. I have since discovered that this is the normal routine but at the time was heartened to hear what I thought was a sensible decision being taken. The train was full but not uncomfortable in the same way that a full tube train is.

After a further ten minutes the announcer came on again to tell us that the train was broken and that instead of delivering us to our station of choice in London, it would now drop us on the outskirts from whence we would have to make our own way to town on the tube.

It took me a while, and a conversation with the man next to me, to decipher what the change meant to me in terms of connections etc but having left an optimistic 45 minute buffer for my speaking engagement I worked out that I could cope with the extra delay.

Having settled my own mind I started to look at my fellow passengers and realised that when the announcement had been made there had been absolutely no reaction from the rest of the passengers. There was no hint of outrage, no gasp of resignation and no casting heavenwards of the eyes of despair.

No reaction at all !

I began to ask why that was.

Did the train break down every day?

That could explain the lack of reaction but it hardly seemed credible. There had to be an expectation of some sort that caused this complete lack of response, and I thought that I could see what it was.

When we are given a stimulus we respond to it.

We are drawn towards warmth as we also avoid heat and cold.

Pavlov created an expectation of hunger in his dogs with the bell such that they salivated even when no food was present.

The lack of response that I saw on the train told me that the passenger's expectation was that they were absolutely powerless to do anything about their situation and therefore there was no point wasting any energy on being indignant or concerned.

When the train stopped everybody got off and I followed as we descended into the tube station to continue our journey into London.

It was on the tube train that it suddenly occurred to me what a lot of money we have been wasting on dealing with customer complaints. If instead of dealing with them and attempting to satisfy the customer we instead create a process that makes complaining so difficult then when customers complain they get a huge negative experience and never receive any satisfaction, they will think very hard before they complain again.

Before long the expectation of the customers is that there is nothing to be gained by complaining and the whole of the resource that was dedicated to dealing with complaints can be reallocated to other more needy areas of the organisation. The provision of nursery care for the children of employees and assisted study programs to retrain the personnel who used to work in the complaints department.

There would be a small staff kept on to deal with the complaints about why there was no complaints department but, using the same strategy, that too could be phased out in time.

The one requirement for the organisation considering this strategy would be a captive market.

So long as the customer did not have a choice I felt that I was on to a winner.

The more I thought about it the more I realised that all of the organisations for whom the prerequisite of a captive market already existed had been running the same system for years.

That is why the passengers on the train failed to react.

These same people will still react when their cheap no frills flight fails to turn up but that is simply because these airlines are relatively new and the expectation that complaining is pointless has not yet been made.

These airlines are working hard at their complaints procedure, if complaints are still being received they have clearly still got some way to go.

Give them time.

Peter Hunter's career started on a nautical theme. After leaving school he spent six years as a navigating officer in the Merchant Navy working within a strict hierarchy. It was not until he joined the Royal Navy in 1988 that he began to realize how valuable people really were when they were allowed to be.

Peter studied for his master's degree at Cranfield Institute of Technology before going to Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth as an Instructor Officer in the Royal Navy. He rose to become Head of Department at the RN Strategic Systems School, Faslane where he further developed the concept that "management is a two way thing".

After 8 years with other consultancies Peter formed his own company on the West Coast of Scotland. Hunter Business Consultancy associates are now based all over the United Kingdom and are expanding into Europe.

Peter is the Author of the book "Breaking the Mould" - http://www.breakingthemould.co.uk

and at


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