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Expert CornerJohn Tschohl is a recognized customer service expert drawing from years of experience sharing methodologies, tips and best practices. This is one in a series of articles from John that we will feature in the Expert Corner on the Desk.com blog. 

How to turn customer problems into a continuous improvement effort.

A quality service system can deliver an unanticipated benefit: more customer complaints. What, you say? Better customer service results in more complaints? How can this be? Customer service actually encourages complaints, and that is good. Complaints are opportunities to correct problems that a company might never otherwise hear about.

Often times, employees avoid complaints entirely because they have never been educated in handling them. Indeed, 80 percent of the complaint letters that I write go unanswered—like one I wrote to the president of Marriott Courtyard hotels. During the first (and last) time I stayed at a Courtyard hotel, my father-in-law had a heart attack. The hotel did not deliver an emergency message left for me. What’s more, they failed to make the wake-up call that I left the night before.

Or, in another scenario, complaints bombarding your company via social media may be resolved, yet never analyzed and used to improve a company’s product and service.

It’s true: a service system that simplifies and encourages complaints tends to increase profit. Why? Because customers who can complain to the company are less likely to spread their complaints throughout the community, thereby creating a snowball effect. It is a wise move to make it very easy for customers to express their opinions.

6 ways to gather the complaints that make your business better

Since continual improvement requires continual feedback, it’s important to make finding out about and analyzing customer complaints/compliments/needs a formal part of your business strategy. Following are six tactics you can employ to ensure your company is listening to its customers—particularly when they have complaints.

1. Lost sale follow-up program: Follow up with lost customers or lost sales by finding out exactly why customers took their business elsewhere. Ask them. Then make adjustments to prevent further losses for the same reasons.

2. Key account reviews: Some B-to-B companies conduct periodic key account reviews, which they call “debriefings.” Everyone involved in an account from product managers to customer service supervisors conducts open-ended discussions. Problems, upcoming special needs, recognition of competent activity, and complaints, are all topics for discussion.

3. Customer visits: Some companies pay a visit their customers now and then. They observe their products being used. And, they talk with their customers’ employees to find out if they have any insights and observations that might help in product design, delivery, or service. There is no better way to get an insight into your customers’ needs and how you can meet them than by watching them and asking questions while they are working. This approach will make a powerful positive impression on your customers as well as everyone else in the company. Some companies go so far as to set job objectives for all middle managers to visit a specific number of customers each year.

4. Complaint correspondence summaries: Consider summarizing customer complaints (and kudos) for senior and middle management as well as front-line people involved with the issues at hand.

5. Service expenses: Dig deep for tips to customer needs, wants and potential complaints in repair costs, field service costs, liability costs, high warranty costs, and returns/refunds. Include counts and amounts in regular management reports.

6. Focus groups: Bring customers in for a focus group on the topic: “What is it like to do business with us?” Record the meeting. Show the video to every employee. Run it continually in employee lounges, perhaps, and show it as part of most routine training sessions.

Now put customer complaints to work for you

Once known, customer needs, expectations, and yes, complaints, should be translated into specific activities and procedures that add value to basic products and services and that intensify customer loyalty.

My key recommendation is to tell every employee what you found. Make them aware of what customers are saying about service. One company prints customers’ comments and a question, matched with responses, and circulates them every week to every employee.

Inform all employees, but take the greatest care to communicate the information to front-line sales and service people who do the real customer-contact work. They should be especially well acquainted with results of surveys of customer needs, wants, and dislikes. The American Management Association suggests that front-line people receive all consumer comment/complaint reports.

Bill Gamgort, Director of Quality Assurance and Customer Affairs at Armstrong World Industries, says that customer survey information is presented formally at monthly executive staff meetings attended by the president and his entire staff. The information also is issued in report form to key appropriate management in the company—vice presidents of marketing and sales, of manufacturing, and of finance. It is sent to the employee relations director too.

“We have brought on some very loyal customers whose original contacts with our company resulted from their ‘concern’ with the product,” says Gamgort.

Not surprisingly, Armstrong’s official view of complaints is that they are opportunities—opportunities to improve customer satisfaction level and, thereby, to increase sales and profit.

This post was originally published on the desk.com blog.