Complaint Handling versus The Actual Problem

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Sometimes our complaint handling is more important than the original problem. Let me explain.

Most people that are in the Process Improvement or Continuous Improvement world tend to ignore the qualitative aspects of the customer’s experience. Yes, I put myself in this category also. But, little do we realize how critically important it is in meeting and exceeding the needs of our customers.

Let me illustrate.

The Event

Let’s take a fictitious process. Suppose you had been waiting for your flight, but then it was cancelled. Unfortunately, this situation is fairly common and I’d venture to say that while it creates a good measure of negative feelings, most of us have had flights cancelled on us. In fact, we’ve somewhat come to expect it.

I’d argue that if a flight was cancelled on us, we would react with “Man, this sucks, but I’ve come to expect this from the airlines”. Furthermore, if we were invited to take a customer satisfaction survey immediately after the flight cancellation, some of us might even give the airlines decent ratings, understanding that cancelling flights are sometimes a necessary evil in the airline business.

In sum, we might articulate our feelings the following way:

  • I was disappointed that my flight was cancelled.

This makes sense and is reasonable.

How The Event Was Handled

Now, let’s take the same situation. Our flight was cancelled. But, let’s suppose the cancellation happened and the way it was communicated was haphazard and that the customers (that’s us) were treated in an inconsiderate way. Let’s further suppose that we, the customers, were made out to feel as if we were a burden on the airline. Maybe, the flight attendant at the gate called on the loud speaker “Attention, your flight is cancelled. Oh, quit all the whining. Cancellations happen, get over it”.

Given this situation and if we were given a customer satisfaction survey to complete, our feelings might be summed up in the following way:

  • I was disappointed with the way the Airline handled the cancellation

Do you see the difference?

The Difference

Okay, let me bring this home now. I don’t mean to be your psychology tutor, but this is important.

Emotions have many dimensions. It’s not as cut and dry as “my flight was cancelled”, but emotions are also triggered by qualitative aspects of experience. In our case, how the flight cancellation was handled.

With this worldview, can you reflect on your work and areas of responsibilities and see an application of the principles I discuss?

Let me know in the comments.


  1. says

    Hi Pete

    It is long been the truth in every industry, that how you are treated when things go wrong matters as much and often more than what actually happened. I deal in a customer relations business all day, by place focus on handling customer problems politely and in a professional manner goes along way not only in resolving their problem, but in turning them into loyal customers, after all poor treat is today’s norm.

    Good attitude is half the battle in winning customers today, and all you have to do is treat them the way you want to be treated. The age old saying “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.”

  2. Michael Sherwood says

    I feel that one of the best ways to create a lifetime customer is through a negative experience. It is how you handle the negative experience that will determine whether the customer writes you off forever or recommends you to all their friends. After a negative experience you get one shot to truly impress the customer.

  3. econobiker says

    Quite funny this description.
    I have had two experiences with flight cancellations due to weather.

    One airline didn’t even cancel the flight -it disappeared from the departure screen! There were no announcements or indicators to the cancellation. I had to pursue information through an unrelated gate with highly stressed airline representatives dealing with people stressed due to being unsure of the current condition (flight disappearing versus showing as cancelled). Turned out that the airline combined my flight into the later one to same destination due to low passenger load and the weather delay. As it was, the later flight was further delayed because there were other delayed passengers connecting to that flight i.e. wanting to maximize the load.

    In the second case, the airline announced the delay with multiple loudspeaker updates and description for the reason for delay, published the delay to the departure screen, and then, when the flight was cancelled, its representatives actively worked to accommodate the passengers onto later flights. The passengers were less stressed because they had been informed and that airline’s corporate policy is such that it encourages airline representatives to ‘have fun’.

    Of course I love the second airline’s handling of the situation (Southwest) and have continued to tell the story of the first airline’s problem (United) since it happened in 2003…

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