Change Your Service Perspective

Customer complaints may be the most valuable asset travel sellers don’t know they have. You can learn from complaints and use them to improve your business.


By Fred Gebhart

Customer complaints may be the most valuable asset travel sellers don’t know they have. You can learn from complaints and use them to improve your business. Or you can fight back and risk a black eye..

This counter-intuitive take on complaints and complainers comes from Ron Kaufman, author of Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else you Meet (Evolve Publishing, May 2012).

“You have to make a decision about your point of view about a complainant,” Kaufman told Travel Market Report. “When any company receives a complaint, it essentially has two choices. One, treat the complainant like a pain in the neck. Or appreciate each complaining customer and use the complaint as an opportunity to improve.”

Kaufman talked about the value of customer complaints in a conversation with Travel Market Report.

Why should travel agents appreciate customer complaints?

Kaufman: Each person who brings a complaint is representing numerous other people who had a similar issue but didn’t bother to tell you. From that perspective, complaining is an act of customer loyalty. Somebody who is disloyal would simply to go the competition or hurt you.

The traditional way to respond to a complaint is to punch back. You punch me by complaining, I punch back by saying you’re wrong. It’s an emotional reaction, not a business decision.
We need to separate that emotional element from what the complainer is actually pointing out. Is there a flaw in our system?

Did somebody not get the proper service education? Are we lacking in supervisory skills at some level or maybe we lack capacity. There is something at the source of the complaint that, if we put the emotional reaction aside, is designed to help us make the company better.

That suggests the customer is always right, even if the customer has clearly violated the rules.

Kaufman: Sometimes customers get it wrong. Sometimes they exaggerate. Sometimes they lie. The customer isn’t always right, but the customer is always the customer. We can usually make a customer feel right by agreeing with what they value.

Say somebody complains about travel department response time being too slow. You respond by saying that you’re right, speed is important. Really important, especially when you’ve got a meeting to get to. You didn’t agree that the travel office was slow, you agreed that speed is important.

Instead of punching back and denying that response time is inappropriate, you’ve done a little pirouette and come around to their side. It’s like judo. Instead of resisting the attack, you move aside and let your opponent keep moving forward until he’s off balance. Then you move.

What about people who love to complain?

Kaufman: If you are doing things right, only a small percentage of your customers complain. Within that group, there are a few people who just don’t want to be happy. They like to complain, they are going to complain no matter what you do. What you really want is for them to go to the competition.

You can encourage them to leave in a very nice way. Say that “It is clear that despite our very best efforts, we have not been able to serve you in the way you would appreciate. And because we care about your service experience, we would like to make it easy to find who else might be able to serve you.” And you give them the phone numbers of all the other airlines or hotels or whoever your competitors are.

Then you wrap it up by saying that “Should you decide to rejoin us and enjoy the level of service we are able to provide, we will be delighted to welcome you back.” You’ve let them know there is a line. And maybe you’ve just sent your competition a problem.

What if the complainer is an internal customer you can’t get rid of? Most companies only have one travel department or agency.

Kaufman: I never talk about internal customers – it sets up a stressful I’m the customer dynamic. I say instead that we’re service partners working with each other so that as an organization, we can service the real customer, which is the person who has a choice to bring revenue to us or to our competition.

There are two sides to customer service. There is the provider and there is the customer. You want company travelers not to look at travel like “Hey, you have to serve me,” but rather be thinking “How can I be your partner to make me the easiest person you have to serve and the most appreciative?” The more effort you put into being a good customer, the easier it is for somebody to serve you well.

Why is service in travel such an iffy proposition?

Kaufman: Service is a problem everywhere, but it is more visible in travel because you have such a high number of transactions and interactions. Whether it’s checking in, TSA, at the gate, baggage handling, the car rental counter, there is service after service and millions of people providing them.

The problem is that differentiation based upon a less expensive product is not a good proposition for staying profitable in the long term. Not only can another provider always shave a little more off the price, but you end up demoralizing the staff.

When you end up racing for the lowest end product, how can the staff feel uplifted and motivated to do a great job? It can occur for a short time, like with Southwest Airlines when Herb Kelleher built a culture of fun and enjoyed great profitability. But the fun evaporated and so did outsized profits.

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