Greenhouse Canada

Features Business Retail
Serving Satisfaction

June 18, 2012  By Dottie DeHart

Spirit Airlines recently flew into a big public relations disaster.

Spirit Airlines recently flew into a big public relations disaster. Sticking to a no-refunds policy, the airline refused to refund the airfare of a passenger who had to cancel his trip after finding out he had terminal cancer. The incident unearthed earlier cases of Spirit’s difficulty handling customer complaints. Once CEO Ben Baldanza hit “reply all” on an email from two customers who had missed a concert due to a delayed flight. Essentially, he told his employees and (accidentally) the customers that Spirit Airlines didn’t owe the customers anything and that they would be back the next time they wanted low airfare.

These examples are proof of just how tricky it can be to navigate customer complaints, says Ron Kaufman, author of Uplifting Service: The Proven Path To Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues and Everyone Else You Meet.
“Spirit Airlines has a policy and they’re sticking to it, “ says Kaufman. “That seems to be how the company chooses to handle customer complaints. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, that approach might not be what’s best for business.


When any company receives a complaint, it essentially has two choices. One, treat the complaining customer like he’s a pain in the neck. Or two, appreciate each complaining customer and use the complaint as an opportunity to improve.”

Kaufman explains that one complaining customer actually represents many other customers who had the same problem, but didn’t complain. “For every person who actually comes to complain to you, there is a quantum number who won’t come to you. They’re the ones who go off and tell somebody else, complain about you online, and take their business elsewhere.” Your goal should be to try and uplift complaining customers every time.

Kaufman offers the following 10 tips for improved service when handling complaints:

  1. Thank them for their complaint. Give positive recognition by saying, right off the bat, “Thank you for reaching out.”
  2. Don’t be defensive. Customers with complaints exaggerate situations, get confused, and yes, may even lie about how things went down. It’s tempting, as the Spirit Airlines CEO did in his “reply all” email, to just blow off the customer. You want to say, “No! That’s not what happened. You’re wrong!” but getting defensive will lead only to more problems.
  3. Acknowledge what’s important to the customer. Kaufman teaches that service providers must find a complaining customer’s value dimension (what’s important to them). Even if you think the customer’s complaint is unfair, there is something they value that your company didn’t deliver on. Embrace that value.
  4. Use judo, not boxing. In boxing, you go after your opponent, trying to punch him to the ground. In judo, you work with someone else’s motions to create a desired result. You use another person’s speed and energy to spin him around and then end up together on the same side.
  5. Apologize once, up front. The customer is not always right, but the customer is always the customer. “You don’t have to tell the customer you were wrong, but you should apologize for the inconvenience they’ve experienced,” says Kaufman. “When you do so, you’re showing understanding and empathy for their discomfort, displeasure, or inconvenience.”
  6. Explain the company’s desire to improve. When you understand what the customer values, show them things your company does to help you perform well in that area.
  7. Educate your customer. Part of hearing the customer out is answering any questions they ask about their specific situation. Provide additional, useful information. “If they ask a question that you can’t answer or don’t know the answer to, tell them you’ll find out the answer and get back to them,” says Kaufman. “And then actually follow through. Contact the customer with the answers they requested.” Even if they did not request an update, provide one anyway. “These are additional opportunities for you to say through your actions, ‘We care about you. We value your business’.”
  8. Contain the problem. Let’s say a family is at a crowded theme park on a hot day. The youngest child starts to have a meltdown. Suddenly, a theme park staff member sweeps onto the scene and whisks the family into a special room. Inside, they find air conditioning, water and other beverages, an ice cream machine, a bathroom, and a comfortable sitting area. The only thing missing from the room is a connection to the theme park’s brand. That’s because this room is used to isolate customers from the brand until they’re all having a more pleasurable experience. The room also isolates the unhappy family from the families who are enjoying their day, and from some park staff who may not be as well prepared to handle the situation.
  9. Recover. Show the customer you care, even if you feel the company did everything right, by making them an offer. Companies worry that they’ll get taken advantage of if they give vouchers, discounts, or freebies as part of their service recovery, but the reality is that almost never happens.
  10. Give serial complainers an out. These kinds of customers complain not so they can become satisfied, but because they are never satisfied. With serial complainers, you must limit your liability and isolate them from your brand.

“Your customers are not your enemy,” says Kaufman. “It’s sometimes hard to remember that when you’re involved in a tense complaint situation. But they’re essential to your business and you really are both on the same side. Your customer wants the product or service you provide, and you want to give it to them. When you treat complaints as opportunities to build loyalty, you can create customers for life and uplift your entire company in the process.”

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