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Worldly Wise


Are Your Customers Too Afraid to Complain?

By Janelle Barlow, Ph.D.

According to researchers, one of the most common reasons why people do not complain is the fear of retribution. That is, they wonder what penalty they will pay for speaking their minds. A common customer fear is that the person or organization to which they complain will do something to make their situation worse. It's easy to relate to this when considering whether to complain about a bad-tasting dish when you are in the middle of the meal. It is much safer to just not eat the offending portion than to risk what the kitchen staff might do to your food when you aren't looking!

These questions not only come up in the food industry, but in industries across the board, even in payroll service businesses. Let me first share with you an experience I had in the airline industry as proof that there is no risk of being punished for speaking up.

I was on a flight out of Las Vegas to San Diego, California, on a hot Sunday afternoon, with the temperature sitting somewhere around 106° Fahrenheit (41 Celsius). That is no problem in an air-conditioned lounge, but sitting in that heat for half an hour in a non-air-conditioned airplane parked on the tarmac is simply unbearable. 

Before boarding the flight, gate agents made frequent, loud, and demanding announcements that they needed everyone on the airplane in the least 
amount of time so we could make an on-time departure. As nearly as I could tell, all the passengers cooperated, even stepping into the rows of seats so the aisles wouldn't be blocked and other passengers could get by. From my perspective, the passengers all deserved rewards for how cooperative they were. The plane had arrived late, but we filed onto that aircraft with intent. We were ready for an on-time departure. 

Then we sat. And we sat. And we sat some more, without air conditioning in stuffy 106° temperature. After a while, I looked to see if there were flight attendants around to find out what was happening. None were to be seen. They had stepped back into the jet ramp, where cool air pleasantly flowed over them. No announcements were made. But we passengers sat there quietly, enduring the situation and not uttering a word of complaint. 

After 15 minutes, I was inclined to say something. But I resisted, as no one else was complaining, though everyone was talking about the situation to each other. After 20 minutes, I was definitely not happy. I began to contemplate getting out of my seat and finding a flight attendant to register my discomfort and to find out what was causing our delay. This seemed only fair to me since we had so nicely accommodated the airline's demands to get to our seats as quickly as possible for an on-time departure. 

A little voice of internal warning cautioned me that I was so annoyed I would probably engage in a conversation as heated as I was feeling physically. The flight was overbooked, so I knew they would have no difficulty throwing me off the plane and substituting someone else who wanted to go to San Diego. And I could not risk that. 

Passengers were certainly discussing the issue, but no one stepped up to find someone who represented the airline. Perhaps it was the heat, or perhaps a simple malfunction, but the flight attendant’s call buttons did not work.

Then, suddenly, as if nothing had happened, the plane's engines started up and we taxied out to the runway and flew to San Diego. No explanation was ever given to us. No apologies were made. Business as usual. 

Did we as passengers participate in this charade? Of course we did. But if everyone on that plane needed to get to San Diego that afternoon as much as I did, perhaps none of them were willing to risk losing their seat by complaining. This is particularly true in today’s flying climate where we see people pulled off airplanes when they show any hint of hostility.
If you were to ask this airline’s employees if anything out of the ordinary happened on that Sunday afternoon, they would no doubt report it was a flight without incident. They will never learn that I, and a number of passengers seated around me, have no inclination to fly this airline again. This flight was my first time on this airline in years, and hopefully it will be my last. 

Most businesses don't have a clue as to the discontent that exists in situations like this where complaints are almost never raised. To avoid such problems, businesses have to ask themselves a simple question: "What kinds of problems can we create for our customers if we deny them our products or services?" The more critical the answers are to this question, the more likely you are not hearing from your customers when they are upset. They are too frightened their situations will only get worse.

While I doubt that your payroll professionals would ever mistreat your clients, this doesn’t stop your customers from considering how they might. For example, if proper documentation was not sent to the proper regulators, might it cross my mind that the highest levels of quality might not be applied in the future when someone remembers me as a complaining customer? The list of problems you could potentially create for your customers is practically endless. Customers work at being nice because they know that they are in your hands, and that you exert a lot of control over the type and level of service they receive.

For this reason alone, we should always make sure our customers have complete faith that they need not fear retribution when they complain.

JanelleBarlowJanelle Barlow, Ph.D., is a businesswoman, author, media spokesperson, keynote speaker, and seminar leader with more than 30 years of experience in the global marketplace. She is President and Owner of TMI US and TACK-USA, both partners with a multi-national global training and consulting firm.