The art of complaint handling

11 November 2013

The good news about customer service is that UK consumers face far fewer problems when buying goods and services than five years ago, according The Institute of Customer Service report, “Handle with care: an analysis and toolkit to improve complaint handling.”  The bad news is that they are more likely to complain when things do go wrong. Dealerships and manufacturers that turn a blind eye to those disgruntled customers do so at their peril.

The report found the number of complaints dropped from 17% in 2008 to 11.7% in 2012, yet the number of consumers lodging a complaint over the same period rose 4%, reaching 76% in 2012. There are still a significant number of “silent sufferers” who don’t report their gripes, the report warns, but that doesn’t mean they won’t share their annoyance with friends and colleagues.

If you don’t deal with a complaint about poor service or a faulty car part well online or on the phone, then you could quickly feel the scorn of the customer through social media channels.  The great thing about social media is that you can quickly detect a pattern of problems and can quickly respond. The challenging aspect of social media is that ignoring problems can quickly affect the brand and reputational damage can spread extremely fast.

Quick response

So speed of response is vital, yet a report from eDigitalResearch found that just 44% of consumers heard back from their organisation they made a complaint to within 24 hours. A further 12% said it took more than a week for the organisation to get back to them.

Failure to deal with complaints is incredibly damaging and a lost opportunity for dealers and manufacturers. For a customer who actually bothers to get in contact with you is actually someone who wants to be loyal - they want to stay with your brand, otherwise they would just go elsewhere. It’s a quirk of human nature that it’s more harmful to fail to meet expectations than it is good to exceed expectations. So if the way you deal with their complaint doesn’t meet their expectations, the fall-out will be extreme and you are unlikely to win them round.

Whether you use social media (which few can afford to ignore) or more traditional forms of complaint handling, there are some key points to remember:

What is a complaint?

You need to understand that a complaint is wider than someone lodging a formal complaint with your dealership or organisation. You need to train staff to react to the slightest whiff of customer dissatisfaction or concern and sort them out quickly and efficiently before they escalate.

First contact

Customers should find most of the information they need on your website. So when they ring your organisation they will probably have a complex problem or complaint that their own investigations could not resolve. People have already invested a lot of time, so do your upmost to solve that problem with the first call or immediately route them to someone who can help.


To be able to deal with your customers that quickly, you need to have a single view of customer data across different sales channels and product lines, and that requires an integrated customer feedback system. That will enable reps to deal quickly with customers without putting them on hold or bouncing them between departments.

Channel choice

Make it easy for people to complain using the channel they want - whether that’s snail mail, email, telephone or social media. If you try and push people down a route they are unhappy with, you will put people off seeking help and risk them waiting until the problem is far more serious or you miss the chance to capture valuable customer insight into a problem.


Although many people prefer to solve problems online, never forget the power of the human touch. Knowing when to intervene - via web chat or a phone call - can take the heat out of a situation quickly.

Be careful

Be careful if you set targets to reduce complaints that you don’t create a situation that is too focused on meeting targets rather than truly helping all customers. You need to think of the long game. If you’re a dealership, you want customers to keep coming back to you for all their servicing needs, rather than choose a competitor. So think about things from their perspective and make it easy for them to do business with you.

About the author

Tom Cregg has been in the automotive industry since 1983, having started with Mercedes-Benz at its UK headquarters.  Since then, Tom has occupied a number of senior regional operational and management roles including with Daimler-Chrysler and SAGE Auto Group in the United States. 

Passionate about connecting automotive manufactures with their customers, Tom has been involved in developing some of the industry’s most intelligent business tools and e-commence systems designed to provide sales, marketing and services teams with a single view of customers.

Tom is a sought after industry expert, helping clients develop business strategies and technological capabilities to better identify and convert new prospects into loyal customers.   He believes the industry has much to learn from retailers including how to engage consumers across multiple touch points and channels including the internet, showroom and service centres. 

Tom is currently spearheading the development of an industry-wide business intelligence tool to connect multiple systems including customer relationship management (CRM) to change the way dealers create and manage sales and service customer experiences so brand loyalty drives sales.  

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