Customer complaints handling - critical to excellent customer service

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This is a free article about handling customer complaints by Derek Stockley. It highlights how good practices can minimise the unhappiness caused by bad customer service practices and processes. Derek Stockley conducts customer service training, see: Customer Service Training.

Regular readers will be aware of how I use banks as case study examples of customer service practices. Avid readers may remember some 'classic' situations with my own bank that I featured in Designing systems and processes that work.

A customer concern is raised

In the article I featured three customer service transactions, but only one story is still to be completed.

To refresh your memories:

"To cut a long story short, the bank decided to stop a special arrangement I had made with a previous bank manager. It allowed me to undertake a certain transaction expeditiously. The arrangement was different to normal policy, and because the bank lacked a system to record such arrangements, the staff member refused to honour my arrangement.

The customer relations story continues

Unable to resolve the situation with a teller and supervisor, I asked for the branch manager’s name and email address.

Unfortunately, there is too much detail to recount here. In summary, I sent six emails (there is a clear record of what happened), the bank sent two emails, I called four times, they called back four times. We had three conversations. If you want the full blow by blow description, see my version here: Case Study Detail - Complaints - Bank.

In summary

  • I sent an email to the branch manager explaining the problem, requesting re-confirmation of the previous arrangement and the name and email address of a higher level manager should the branch manager choose to refuse my request.

  • The branch manager was on holidays, so I had two email exchanges with a relieving manager unwilling to reinstate the arrangement. His replies did not address my specific requests.

  • He rang me and left a message with a telephone number at the branch. I rang later that day and the call centre answered. After listening to the standard blah blah, I was told that they couldn't put me through as it was outside 'bank business hours' (9.30 am to 4.00 pm).

  • I was angry at this stage and my next email indicated so. He rang me back, we had an extensive discussion, but he was unable to change the bank's position. He gave me the name of an area manager.

  • When the area manager rang, we had a good discussion. He listened to my comments about being redirected from the branch to the call centre and the business hours issue. He advised that the bank NOW had a recording system (the lack of which caused the problem in the first place) and a note could be put on the file for my unusual transaction. As he wasn't prepared to override the local manager, he suggested I call her upon her return.

  • The branch manager returned from holidays. I had trouble contacting the branch, but on the second time the number given to me went through to the branch.

  • When we spoke, it took two minutes for us to discuss the issue and for her to reinstate my arrangement.

  • To complete the transaction, I went to another branch. I stated that I had a special arrangement, the teller looked it up, found the details and successfully processed my transaction.

Lessons in customer service and complaints handling

There are many lessons in this transaction.

Recording systems - customer details

The bank now has a recording system. In my newsletter of 17 March 2005 (Achieving exceptional customer service) I provided the following:

I have some free advice for the banks and other like institutions. It is probably worth a million dollars, and given the cost of their ICT systems, wouldn’t cost that much to implement.

The idea is simple - allow your staff to create and update a "special notes" section for each customer.

Once a special situation is determined, and you know it could occur again, spend a minute recording the policy/decision/process. This will save a lot of time and aggravation, because the customer will not have to go through the long process of explaining it all again the next time.

Telephone systems

It is hard enough to reach busy people, so do not put artificial barriers between you and the customer. Give people your direct line. Do not put them through a switchboard or call centre. See: Telephone systems need to be customer friendly - this article written in December 2004 is still current today.

Changing the bank

The financial press reported with some scepticism a new initiative by my bank.

The bank is to undertake a major employee engagement initiative.

I support this action, as my position on such matters is clear:

Employee engagement and organisational pride - employee engagement and organisational pride are discussed. Employee engagement is also defined.

The importance of internal branding to support exceptional customer service is growing - identifies the growing importance of internal branding. The relationship to successful change programs promoting a positive culture and climate for organisations is also explained.

I believe that my experience outlined above confirms that the computer system design tip was 'worth a million dollars'. How much do you save by avoiding poor customer service? How much management and staff time can you save?

Despite the scepticism of the financial community, the bank’s 'engagement initiative' has the potential to be worth a billion dollars. A motivated and engaged workforce, supported by good systems, can 'turbocharge' performance.

One last thing

The bank will be on the way to the billion when they correctly answer these questions:

When should have Mr Stockley’s problem become our (the bank’s) problem?

Despite all the exchanges, why did we ask him to contact the branch manager on her return from holidays? Why wasn’t she briefed to immediately contact Mr Stockley upon her return?

For that matter, why did Mr Stockley have to wait? Surely, we can have systems in place that do not rely on the presence of the 'permanent' branch manager?

Why did we spend so much time on a problem that in the end took two minutes to satisfactorily resolve?


Achieving 100% accuracy in customer service is very difficult. However, it is possible when 'engaged' staff operate with good systems. Customer complaints are a goldmine of useful information. We should all learn from them.

To review the newsletter, see: Listing of recent newsletter articles. All articles relate to a performance theme, but individual newsletters cover a specific topic. Themes include customer service, leadership, management, website marketing and time management.

You can publish this article, see: Publication.

Derek Stockley conducts a variety of public training courses in Australia.

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