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Turning critics into fans Q&A with The Writer’s Neil Taylor on how to deal with complaints

The FSA have had 500,000 complaints about banks’ customer service in six months. What’s going wrong?
Customers feel they face labyrinthine processes and barmy bureaucracy. Sometimes that’s true, of course. But often it’s as much about how banks communicate with people who complain as it is about the actual service.Neil Taylor
So what have banks got to learn about communication?
The industry has taken a battering and trust is at an all-time low. And anyone moved to complain is usually angry, frustrated and worried. But instead of really trying to understand those customers, and win back that trust, banks go on the defensive. You can feel it in the letters they send in response: they’re typically cold, passive and off-puttingly formal. They’re never going to get anyone back on-side.

But don’t banks need to show how seriously they’re taking complaints?
Of course. But serious and formal are not the same thing; in fact when dealing with someone face-to-face, anyone who sounds too formal comes off as officious. The same is true in writing. So banks need to give their complaints handlers leeway to empathise with their customers, even if they’re rejecting a claim for compensation.

The best way to get across your empathy is just by sounding like a normal person. Anyone who writes to a customer ‘I trust that you will find we have brought this matter to a satisfactory conclusion’ is inviting ridicule, not co-operation. This approach to writing means unpicking lots of things people were taught at school about what makes us sound ‘professional’, and instead thinking about what we’d want to read if this letter landed on our own doorstep.

Is there any proof that this approach actually works?
Tons. One client we worked with cut repeat complaints by eight per cent just by changing the tone of their responses. And if you work in a contact centre, you know exactly how much a repeat complainant costs you to deal with. Now, there aren’t many things in the current climate that save you money, make your customers happier, and can even put a little spring back into the step of your employees.

It’s about changing your mindset. Yes, complaints are a pain to deal with. But they could be an opportunity, too. There’s a famous old story about BMW drivers whose cars break down while they’re under warranty; it actually makes them more likely to buy another BMW. Why? Because the way they deal with the problem is so slick. And not only are those drivers impressed, but they go and tell their friends too. Very few bank customers ever get such a good story to tell. You can spend millions on an ad campaign, but if someone gets a terrible letter the day after your ad airs, it’s millions down the drain.

So how do you make it happen?
The simple answer is to change the culture. Easy to say, and difficult to do. First, decide how you do want to sound. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic provide broadly the same service, but their spirit is really different. So what’s the spirit of your business, and how will that come through in how you deal with complaints?

Once you’ve got that, training people is a great start, but you can go further. Get feedback from customers; make how people deal with complaints just as much a part of their appraisal as how many they get through; rewrite templates so they don’t feel like, well, templates; get the CEO to set an example when he or she has to apologise, or deal with the disaffected.

And finally, make it someone’s responsibility. Find the right person, give them licence and clout, and heads will get knocked together sharpish, and red tape will get ripped through. And I guarantee you’ll have happier customers.

Neil Taylor is creative director of The Writer (thewriter.com), and author of Brilliant Business Writing.