Be honest – how many of you take heed of advice or the law when it comes to handling complaints? Do you try to avoid responsibility, or shift the blame elsewhere?
In the past, you may not have fallen foul with this approach as UK consumers haven’t always been known for voicing their complaints or being savvy about consumer protection laws. Complaining can be embarrassing and confrontational, and many people just think it isn’t worth the bother. But times have changed. Now people have wised up to their rights.
Is this bad news for your veterinary practice? No – on the contrary, complaints can provide the backbone to future lasting client satisfaction and repeat business. Here’s why.
Why are complaints important?
Which scenario is better: the unhappy client who vents their spleen against your practice or the unhappy client who says nothing, does nothing and promptly takes their business to a competitor? The former, for several reasons. Firstly, it gives you the opportunity to not lose that client and any others who they may go on to talk to about their problem. Secondly, it can help you identify potential weaknesses within your practice.
Complaints – or perhaps more accurately, feedback – should be actively encouraged […] Handle complaints well and you can use them to your advantage
How much worse would it be if you are giving an unsatisfactory service and you don’t even know it? Complaints – or perhaps more accurately, feedback – should be actively encouraged. It is valuable to your business. Handle complaints well and you can use them to your advantage.
How do I respond to a complaint?
It’s never easy dealing with someone who is angry or unhappy – especially if your practice is the root cause of their problem. The first thing to do is to defuse the situation and let them get whatever they want to say off their chest, irrespective of whether they are right or wrong. It may be satisfying to win an argument with a client who is clearly in the wrong, but at the end of the day, you’ll lose anyway as they’ll take their custom elsewhere.
Listen to what they have to say and acknowledge their feelings. Apologise for the situation without accepting specific blame. Empathise with what they are thinking and try to put yourself in their position. This will give you a better understanding not only of how you will resolve the complaint but also of how you can use it to your advantage by building better business practices and showing the client how important they are to you.
Be prompt, concise and specific in response to the complaint in question, rather than generalising or shifting blame in the direction of others. And of course, explain how you are going to rectify the matter – this is the most important part. Having defused the client’s anger, you now need to show you are true to your word by meeting their expectations.
But you shouldn’t just meet their expectations – you should exceed them. If you can resolve their complaint and then go beyond the call of duty, you will be well on the way to creating brand loyalty for your business. Even if it is just a goodwill gesture like a bouquet of flowers or a credit voucher for a future date, or perhaps something simple like a handwritten message after the complaint has been resolved, these little things can make a difference and stress that the client is important to you.
Timeframes – why is this important?
Make sure you get back to the client quickly. There is nothing worse than having to wait for a response, especially if you don’t even know if there will be one. While the client is waiting, the chances are they will be talking to others about their negative experience, seriously damaging your reputation and costing you potential custom. You’ve heard the saying “news travels but bad news travels quickly”; in our context, a happy client may perhaps only tell a couple of people, but an unhappy client will tell 10 others – and quickly too.
Think of the times when you’ve been the customer. Are you always happy with the product or service you receive? Didn’t think so – but do you always complain? Many people don’t – they just take their business elsewhere the next time. But you, the business owner, need to know what your client is thinking.
Even though it might seem like inviting trouble, you should make it easy for clients to complain
Make it easy for them by explaining, either at the point of payment or in practice literature and online, that you welcome their feedback. And what’s more, let them know that you will act on it. Your public is far more likely to fill in satisfaction surveys if they know the practice will personally acknowledge their opinions and resolve a dispute quickly and without fuss. Even though it might seem like inviting trouble, you should make it easy for clients to complain.
Involve your staff
Lastly, make sure staff are well briefed on your complaints policy. Also reassure them that they will not suffer from any of the complaints.
A member of your reception team who fears the consequences of someone making a complaint might be tempted to keep it to themselves. Assure them that complaints are not a negative thing, but merely an opportunity to reinforce the strength of your service and that they won’t be held accountable for minor mistakes. That way you should ensure that no client feedback is missed.
Assure [staff] that complaints are not a negative thing, but merely an opportunity to reinforce the strength of your service and that they won’t be held accountable for minor mistakes
Useful contacts and information
As noted earlier, there is a tendency for businesses to avoid responsibility when someone makes a complaint, but the important thing is to see it as an opportunity. Remember, even if they are wrong, it still pays to do that extra bit to keep the client happy and make sure they come back to your practice for more.
For those looking to make sure that they have a good basis for dealing with issues if the worst happens, there is a good business section on Business Companion that covers trading standards law. There are also links to more general business services on the Chartered Trading Standards Institute’s website. Also, the Institute of Customer Service can offer advice.
If a complaint is about to spiral out of control, it may be worth sending it for either mediation or arbitration. The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution can assist in these cases.
If a complaint is about to spiral out of control, it may be worth sending it for either mediation or arbitration
An action plan for handling complaints
- The first thing to do is to put yourself in the client’s shoes: try to get a handle on what they are thinking and better understand where they are coming from
- Don’t argue with the client or debate the facts with them. Listen to them, remain calm, and allow them to blow off steam and defuse the situation
- Make sure you acknowledge their unhappiness and show empathy for their point of view, even if, in your opinion, their claim is outrageous
- While not accepting blame yourself, do apologise and agree with them for the distress they have experienced
- Be swift in your response and specific to their complaint, thus showing they have been treated fairly about their individual circumstances, which will emphasise that they are important to your business
- Don’t promise them the earth – make sure that whatever compromise or solution you suggest is reasonable and that once you make the commitment, you stick by it
- Go the extra mile and exceed their expectations with regard to settling the dispute. Make them feel special
- Keep staff informed and aware of your complaints procedure and ensure they know that complaints will be treated as opportunities for future business rather than an unwanted hassle
- Remember to treat every client in a way that you would like to be treated yourself
A July 2023 survey – The UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) – from the Institute of Customer Service, which is published every six months and surveys 10,000 consumers who detail their experience of organisations in 13 key business sectors, found that customer satisfaction is dropping (ICS, 2023).
Overall, the score was 76.6 out of 100 – a drop of 1.8 points compared to July 2022 and its lowest score since 2015. Customers are increasingly seeing poor service when it comes to dealing with issues.
The impact of bad customer experiences is often most acute for customers with low levels of financial well-being
The survey noted that organisations took longer to resolve complaints and more problems remained unresolved. Notably, the impact of bad customer experiences is often most acute for customers with low levels of financial well-being.
From the perspective of customers, the biggest issues for organisations to improve on are making it easy to contact the right person to help, employee behaviour and competence, and website navigation.