THE GIFT OF A COMPLAINT | DR. WRIGHT L. LASSITER JR.
THE GIFT OF A COMPLAINT
Last Friday I spent the entire day at the Double D ranch in Mesquite sharing with the participants in the updated leadership program (Basic Leadership 2008) for a group of twenty-eight staff members from all of the district locations. This updated program replaces what many of you know as Leadership DCCCD. My task was to share principles, lessons, and personal leadership experiences. While it was a long day, I could not cover the entire leadership waterfront. Was there something else that I should send the class afterwards for their further study and reflection?
The question was answered for me when I went to my office on Saturday to read the contents of my in-box and read all of the e-mail messages that were waiting for me to read and process. There were two rather lengthy letters from students who had financial aid issues that they felt needed to be brought to my attention. Obviously the resolution will come from the leadership of the colleges where the students are enrolled. During my twenty-year tenure at El Centro College to receive such letters was a part of what I called the “opening of school ritual.” When complaints reach the level of the CEO of an organization, you often have to ask the question – “Why did this reach me? Could it not have been addressed at the point of contact?”
I want to share with all of my DCCCD colleagues a lesson that I did not share with the Basic Leadership 2008 participants on the subject of addressing complaints. An important lesson is that a student’s complaint may be the best gift you’ll ever receive. I will use the term “customer” from time to time in this commentary because our students do view themselves as customers.
Most of our students (customers) are probably satisfied with your service, at least partially. You probably never hear them say, “Everything’s okay. No problems. We are happy with your service just the way it is.” On the other hand, you may get a few calls and visits from those who are unhappy. In most cases they come from an unhappy minority. You must keep that in perspective and don’t become jaded and fall into the trap of thinking that customers, in general, like to complain. Yes, there will be chronic complainers who feel that they never get good service. Most customers don’t like to complain. In fact, they generally go out of their way to avoid it. For that reason we should always take our customers (students) seriously when they do have a problem. Here’s my concept of “Ten Commandments of Good Customer Service.”
Thank the customer.
The most natural thing to do when you hear about a student’s problem is to start focusing on the solution to the problem. It works better, however, if you start by conveying your appreciation. After all his complaint is a gift. The student is giving you valuable information, and you are being given a free consulting service – telling you how you can improve your service area. He’s even giving you a chance to correct his problem so he can keep on receiving your service.
Explain your appreciation.
Simply saying “thanks” is not adequate. Try something like, “I’m happy to hear about this problem because it tells us we need to streamline our procedures.”
Listen to the student’s/customers story and complaint.
Before you resolve the problem, the customer wants to tell you his/her story. And she wants to tell it to a person who seems to care. Ask questions. Listen. Paraphrase what you hear. Then go a little deeper. Ask some questions to determine the scope and nature of the problem. And once again, repeat the information to make sure you understand exactly what the student perceives as the problem. Don’t be tempted to skip this little step. The customer needs to tell her story. If you don’t listen, she’ll find others who will and you can’t afford that kind of negative publicity. When listening takes place, the president, chancellor, or even trustees may not hear about the problem.
Refrain from argument.
This is difficult for some. The student may be angry and say things that are unfair or untrue. When someone is upset, they want you to listen – not to tell him why he’s wrong. If you let the student tell his story and get his emotions out on the table, there’s a better chance he will calm down and listen to reason.
Show you are sorry.
Let the student know you’re sorry there is a problem, but you are glad to hear about it. When you do this you are not admitting error, but simply letting the student know you regret the situation, no matter what the reason is or where the fault lies.
Exhibit some empathy.
Once you have calmed the student down with your thanks, your listening and your apology let the “customer” know you understand how he or she must feel. Say something like, “That must have been so disappointing for you.”
Find out what the “customer” wants.
Ask the student what will meet his/her needs. In the book, “A Complaint is a Gift,” Barlow and Muller say – “At times customers only want to let you know something happened and how they were inconvenienced. They don’t necessarily want anything extra or special from you.” But if something is sought, find out what it is. Don’t guess. Don’t jump to conclusions.
Explain what you can do.
Once you understand what your “customer” wants, if you’re empowered to do it, do it. Do it immediately. If you have to involve someone with more authority, get that person involved without delay. If it’s not that simple, if your hands are tied in some way, if you can’t do exactly what the customer is asking, tell him you’re going to do whatever you can to make things right. After all, there’s ALWAYS something you can do and the customer knows that. So avoid saying, “There’s nothing we can do.” Refrain from the “no” word. Stay away from getting into a big explanation as to why you can’t do something. It will only add fuel to the anger of the customer.
Once a resolution has been decided upon, set up a course of action that is agreeable to the customer. Be specific as to who will do what by when.
Check back with the customer.
Most people are simply glad when they’ve gotten through another complaint. But if you really want to stand out in the mind of the complaining party, check back to make sure that the problem was handled.
Some people take good service as just plain common sense. That may be true, but when it comes to “customer” complaints, the most “common,” the most “natural” thing to do is to ignore or argue about it. That doesn’t work. Try following these 10 steps instead. Look at the list and identify the 2-3 that you most need to improve. Put them on a 3 x 5 card as a reminder. The next time you receive a complaint, look at the card and remind yourself to practice those 2-3 steps.
A complaint may be the best gift that you will receive.
Have a good week colleagues as we all seek to be committed to excellent service.