Over 200 years ago, a humorous book entitled The Miseries of Human Life was written by the Reverend James Beresford. It was a satirical and ironic tome that recorded and praised the causes of discomfort in early 19th century England, that we would now term as “first world problems.” It was subtitled the Groans of Samuel Sensitive and Timothy Testy, and catalogued “in excruciating detail” the “petty outrages, minor humiliations, and tiny discomforts that make up every day human existence”. The Miseries were written as a series of discussions between Mr Samuel Sensitive and Mr Timothy Testy, in which they catalogue the daily “injuries, insults, disappointments and treacheries” of everyday life. Now known to most of us as Facebook
A Nation of Moaners
In 2016 the descendants of the (probably mythical) Messrs. Testy and Sensitive have turned groans into moans and made them an art form. The English are now known as a nation of moaners, according to recent research from the Ombudsman Service recently published in The Times. They calculated that there are now 52 million complaints a year made to social media, supplier complaint lines, ombudsman services and small claims court. However, the research also noted that another 66 million problems had not led to complaints with many put off by the effort involved. But if encouraging affirmative action had been the intention of the good reverend, would that have satiated the myriad moaning needs of the early nineteenth century population? Later reviews of The Miseries suggested that the book, rather than being an early example of a self-help guide, was the opposite. Partly because grumbling is to the grumbler so sweet a luxury and misery to the miserable so dear a happiness, actually finding relief was totally inconsequential and in fact ruined the sport.
And the end result?
Fast forward a century and a half and Robert Crampton, writing in The Times a few days after the earlier research report, jumps on this historical bandwagon and opined that “Britain has become a nation of cowardly moaners.” And wondered what had become of the Blitz spirit and turned “mustn’t grumble” or “don’t want to make a fuss” into a tsunami of griping, groaning, whingeing and whining. But, as he notes, people may be complaining more but they’re not necessarily actually getting satisfaction. In his words “I’m not aware of mass defections from big banks or telecoms giants, or insurance providers over spurious charges, hidden extras or small-print caveats.” This is clearly due to a strong disconnect between their words and intentions and the appendages at the end of their legs that activate their opinion. This is probably because they’re not really complaining, nor would they even dream about it, as Mr Crampton acknowledges, but are “getting all stewed up then moaning to their wife.” Entirely the wrong target if satisfaction and compensation are the ultimate goals. It’s time to stand up, stop moaning to each other and say something to someone that actually might make a difference. The key here is to find the “right” someone.
Yes, complaints are great – but don’t bother us with them!
Many companies hope that all you ever do is moan. In fact they’re counting on it. Despite what many organizations say about the value of the complaints, they treat them and the customer with disdain and make you jump through real or imaginary hoops in order to make you lose the will to live. If you’re still breathing at the end of it, they’ll reluctantly and in a mean spirited way, offer you meagre and totally inconsequential compensation under the guise of the truly awful “goodwill gesture.” This applies especially to the companies that we all deal with every day and that Robert Crampton references; train companies, airlines, banks, telecoms, insurance companies and the worst offenders (according to Which?) utility companies.
Can’t complain, Won’t complain, Why bother!
UK train companies, who are high on the list of the worst offenders in all aspects of customer service, make it particularly hard. As a result more than 80% of potential claims for compensation for late running go unclaimed due to confusing systems. In an ironic twist, the UK energy ombudsman Lewis Shand Smith recently received an obviously inflated and incorrect bill from his energy company which he tried to resolve through the regular channels. After an extended period of time in which the supplier didn’t respond, he informed them that they had failed in their regulatory customer obligations. They answered, being unaware of his day job, by telling him to complain to the Energy Ombudsman. He finally sorted out it out with a call to a senior executive who he happened to know, but noted that most customers don’t have a hotline to the boss. More about that later.
But what Mr Shand Smith found was that only 5% of complaints end up with an Ombudsman, which in itself is shocking and reflects the fact that most people put up with bad service. What was is even more shameful was that when customers did complain to the Energy Ombudsman an astonishing 97% were resolved in favour of the customer. Which, as he noted suggests, “there is clearly something wrong if almost all complaints are resolved in favour of the customer? In a normal functioning market you would expect that to be about half.” But as those of us in the UK know, the words normal and functional are rarely found in the same sentence as energy market.
We’d like to help but………
We have made some inroads by taking to social media, when all hope seems lost. But isn’t the best first step, and is the basis for Robert Crampton’s “cowardly” epithet. But neither is a customer service agent, though not through any fault of their own. Wanting to help others, especially those that clearly are in need of assistance and support, would seem to be a perfectly natural and worthy thing to do. Most of us, when confronted with this situation in a personal circumstance with relatives, friends and even strangers –think the Good Samaritan – don’t hesitate to step in. It’s an unfortunate reality that many businesses, especially those with customer service contact centres, actively discourage any personal feelings or emotions from creeping into their employees’ activities, primarily because their metrics are company focused and not customer focused. It’s as if when they sign in for their shift, they’re asked to put their positive and caring attitude in a drawer marked “not to be opened during business hours.”
Don’t abandon all hope. Help is here in this column and it’s deceptively simple. Here’s what most of us want:
• Acknowledge my complaint
• Accept responsibility for my distress
• Assure me that you’ll fix it
• Appease my inconvenience with meaningful compensation
Here are three easy steps to achieve it, that won’t take much time, won’t involve staying on hold on a ”help” line, and is almost guaranteed to succeed.
1. Start at the top – Copy all senior people, especially if HQ is in the US or Canada
When we have an issue most of us seek out resolution by calling or emailing customer service help desks, going on social media or writing to newspaper columnists. Forget it. They rarely work, although you may get some momentary relief via Twitter or Facebook. It’s not because people in customer service teams don’t care. Most do, they are after all just regular folk that are kind to their kids and don’t kick their dog. So while these people may want to help you, it’s highly unlikely that they have the tools or the authority to actually solve your problem to your satisfaction, and often can only offer the pathetically named, and wholly insufficient “goodwill gesture” After the 50th complaint of the day they just give up and take sanctuary in the inane, arcane and dumb rules that they have to enforce, that tip the odds in the favour of the house.
So start at the top. Finding company addresses and senior executive names is a piece of cake and will take far less time and trouble than navigating customer service lines or web-sites. It doesn’t have to be a letter, although those are held in high regard these days due to their scarcity. Email addresses are equally easy to find, or to figure out, and even if the big cheese doesn’t actually get to read the email, someone somewhere with the authority to fix it will get it. If the company has a US or Canadian parent company, then copy a senior executive there as well. These guys and gals really do care and will make sure that someone responds positively. Just in case you think my Canadian bias has taken over, I recently had a chance to prove this. I had a problem with a large, well-known UK supermarket and a US Headquartered, carpet cleaning concession service in their stores. I sent an email to senior execs of both companies. The US CEO responded positively to me in less than an hour despite being in Texas, where, with the 7 hour time difference, it was 7:00 a.m.! His response was sincere and action oriented. He copied his UK counterpart at the supermarket, along with his senior colleagues at the UK branch, and the issue was sorted within 24 hours.
2. Deliver a strongly worded but polite and action oriented letter
While many of these issues can reduce us to tears or worse, stomach churning anger, this is where the Blitz spirit can come in very handy. Keep calm and start writing. Ensure that your tone is firm, but friendly and polite. Make sure that you liberally sprinkle the letter or email with phrases that include “I’m very disappointed”, “I would have expected more from a company such as yours”, “the friends and colleagues that I’ve told about my experience were shocked.”
Make sure that you have your facts right and don’t make it personal even if the complaint is about a colleague at the company. Be very clear that you expect compensation and not just a mealy-mouthed apology. Many people, even if they get to this stage, are quite often very vague with their expectations or say “I just wanted to let you know how I felt”. All very nice, but a total waste of time. While this shouldn’t just be about money, if you’ve been inconvenienced by a product or service, it’s time for them to pay up. If this is a service I usually go for a month’s subscription and a commitment to fix the problem. Clearly it’s hard to confirm the latter, but it’s a necessary touch. A really valuable additional touch is if you also happen to be a shareholder in the company. As depressing as it sounds, many MDs and CEOs raison d’etre is “to increase shareholder value” and therefore generally care more about them than customers. Finish it off with a pleasant but expectant time stamped signoff such as “I look forward to a speedy and mutually beneficial resolution by the end of the week” or something similar.
3. Send a “Thank you” note
Seems like such a little thing. But we all appreciate a “Thank you” regardless of the level of the activity that spawned it. Despite my earlier comment s, the best companies do appreciate and act promptly, sincerely and authentically on complaints and this additional touch will validate their actions and allow them to share the good feelings with colleagues. Even though the exchange may be altruistic on both sides, following up on this kind of personal connection with customers will often lead to increased business and referrals. You’ll also benefit by getting better service in the future, if this episode is duly noted and visible for future interaction. And you’ll have a good news story to share down at the pub with your fellow moaners.
So stop moaning, start complaining and remember you don’t have to moan alone. You have friends out here to help you get ready to grumble.