Seven Tips for Better Handling Customer Complaints Positively

Keeping a vending or OCS location requires more than low prices or better technology, it depends on good customer service. And no one knows this better than route drivers, who, when confronted with the inevitable grouse, have the opportunity to turn an unhappy customer into a patron for life.

During the National Automatic Merchandising Association's Supervisor Development program at the Spring Expo in Las Vegas, Nev., Jeff Parks, president, C. L. Swanson Corp., Madison, Wis., gave a lecture on handling customer complaints. Although speaking to the owners and operators, route drivers can use the same strategies he discussed.

Remaining calm is essential

The most challenging complaints often come from angry customers, but the key is not to get upset. Although easier said than done, it helps to remember the customer is frustrated or dissatisfied with something that has happened, or not happened -- not anyone personally. Parks' tip is to let a ranting customer vent. "That's what they need," he said.

Being in person, the route driver can make eye contact and nod to indicate he or she is actively listening.

Apologize for something

Secondly, apologize, said Parks. There are ways to do this even if you did nothing wrong. At the very least a route driver can say, "I apologize for the inconvenience caused by…" Or "I'm sorry this wasn't done to your satisfaction…" Or "I'm sorry this happened…"

Next, if the problem is unclear, try to ask for more particulars. Repeat what you understand to be the issue. Get details. This will not only assist in assessing the severity of the grievance, but it will also clarify the information if the issue must be called into the service department or a supervisor.

Parks suggested this question to learn more: "Would you help me understand with a bit more information, so I can correct this quickly and find the best solution?"

The Call back Option

Operators recognize there are different types of complaints. Tom Bergstrom, vice president of Bergstrom Daywood Company, Austin, Texas, said, "If the driver doesn't know the answer, the route driver should say, ‘May I have your name and contact number and I'll have someone call you today.' If someone had a food item, and got sick, then the driver should call it in. Myself or Jim will make that call back," said Bergstrom.

Jack Maybury, president of Derringer Co., Cincinnati, Ohio, has dedicated customer retention managers (CRM) where his drivers can direct complaints. "It (dealing with a problem) is a bit of driver discretion," said Maybury. Because CRMs are trained in customer service, Maybury encourages the route drivers to take advantage of them.

Explain how you will fix it

While asking for more information, discover what solution the customer is looking for in recompense. Parks has found that complaining customers aren't always looking for refunds or price reductions (although about 10 percent are). A sincere apology or assurance of corrective action is often all that's required to make the situation right, said Parks.

Decide what can and can't be done. Jerry Pohlman, a route driver for Central Vending, Janesville, Wis., said, "If I can't fix it, which I usually can, I'll call service and they'll come when they are in the area. Unless it's something like a machine is down, then they'll come right away." He has been working as a route driver long enough that he can handle most complaints. "I've never had to go to the company and say you have to handle this guy, because I can't."

There are two types of complaints that Pohlman mentioned: those about equipment malfunctioning and those about product. Pohlman will take the suggestion for a product back to the provider, or if it's something he knows his company no longer offers and why, he will explain it to the customer. "The most important thing is explaining it until they are satisfied," said Pohlman.

Consider the Long-term consequences

Bergstrom's route drivers are instructed to refund the money from a machine malfunction and offer the product to the customer -- free. That's also the case when the customer complains about a product not tasting or looking the way it should.

"In summer, chocolate will something turn color. If someone gets a white candy bar and thinks its bad, we want to replace it. Sometimes we snicker when the customer who's complaining says ‘I ate it all,' but you don't call them on it. It's not worth it. It's not enough money to bring forth bad will from a customer," said Bergstrom.

People at a facility will be vending customers as long as they are at the facility, according to Bergstrom. And if a customer has a candy-bar-and-bottled-water-a-day habit, there's really no advantage to upsetting him or her and perhaps causing that person to stop patronizing the vending machine.

Although Maybury likes his route drivers to direct the complaints to the CRMs, he also wants the customer to feel assisted.

The vending machines all have a customer service number on them that route drivers reference when confronted by a customer, said Maybury, but what is important is how they do it.

"Call this number and ask for ___________,'"is his script.

"We always give out a name and number," said Maybury. "It's so they don't feel like it's just a call to the office." Whether following a set protocol or "winging it," route drivers should remember it is extremely important to tell the customer what you are going to do. Parks offered an example: "I'm going to take care of your request right away by…"

And don't forget to get their name and contact information.

Be ready for price increase questions

Maybury had a special suggestion for complaints about price increases, which is one of the issues often brought up to his drivers.

"The right thing to say in that hypothetical example might be, ‘That's something I know has been communicated to your company, handled by our management team. Your company should be aware of it.' Or refer them to the office number. ‘They will be able to give you a better answer than I can.'"

The key idea is diffusion, said Maybury. The customer usually won't call. But avoid saying things like, "I don't know or I don't make that decision." It's hard for providers to recover from statements like that, said Maybury.

Thanking affirms the customer

End the conversation by expressing appreciation for the feedback. Parks suggested, "Thank you for telling us what happened and for giving us an opportunity to discuss this issue in greater detail. I'm sorry that we didn't completely meet your expectation."

It may sound strange to thank someone for complaining, but remember, the complaining customer is giving the provider an opportunity to make things right instead of simply changing service.

"We take them seriously. Absolutely," said Bergstrom. "Generally speaking, people won't take time to complain unless they're upset -- and sometimes not even then."

Pohlman said he doesn't get many complaints, but when he does, he doesn't mind. "I welcome them. It helps sell product," he said. And providing service and product the location needs is the point, he added.

To maintain the provider-customer relationship, it's important to go back to the person who complained and follow up. Parks suggested questions like, "Was the situation resolved?" Or "Is there anything else you've noticed?"

This is an opportunity for the driver to be proactive and address issues before they become worse. If it was not handled, and the route driver assumed it was, the customer will feel he or she has received a lack of service.

Ineffective handling

According to Parks, some of the ineffective ways to deal with complaints are a simple apology with no follow-up action or a rejection of the complaint by a simple denial or shifting of blame. And rudeness never works.

Maybury reiterated that what not to say is almost more important than what to say. When confronted with a grouse about higher prices, route drivers should avoid, "Geez, I like pay increases."

A better statement is, "You're asking me a great question and ‘so and so' can explain it better than I can."

Remember that complaints aren't the end of a business relationship; they are a chance to renew it. "A dissatisfied customer can become your most loyal if you can turn it around," said Parks. It's about letting the customer know their complaint is important and implementing the action to resolve it.

In the end, the way a complaint is handled is supposed to convey that we sincerely care, said Bergstrom.

"We want them to put money in the machine, but also to be satisfied with what they get."

Handling Customer Complaints Checklist

  1. Stay calm -- don't take the complaint personally
  2. Listen carefully -- do not interrupt
  3. Apologize, even if you did nothing wrong
  4. Find out more about the problem and possible solutions
  5. Take action or tell the customer who you will refer it to (get name and contact number) -- actually do it
  6. Thank the customer for bringing the issue to your attention
  7. Follow up with customer later