Tuesday 31 July 2007

Publishing customer complaints

I posted a while back about the idea of publishing customer complaints, to show everyone that (a) sometimes things go wrong and (b) how we deal with those situations. This post is my first shot at doing that.

I'm not going to identify the customer, nor publish verbatim their complaint (because I don't think it is fair to do that without their permission) but I am going to summarise the situation, and publish our side of the correspondance:

The customer had a list of short jobs to do. She phoned up and we estimated that her list would take 3hrs (£140+VAT) to complete, and booked in one of our handymen.

As with many customers, she was happy to let us in first thing in the morning and then leave our handyman to it while she went to work.

Our chap turned up in the morning and it was clear that there was much more to do than the list of items we had noted down during her phone call, and that it would take much longer than our estimated 3 hrs to do. We don't know exactly what conversation took place, certainly our standard practice is to say something like "looks like I'll need about x hours for all this, is that OK?". Whatever exact conversation took place, our handyman was left with the clear impression that the customer was happy for him to do everything on the list, and wasn't too fussed about how long it all took.

It took seven hours in the end, plus £80 of materials, a total of £380+VAT.

The customer later complained that she thought it very unfair that we had originally estimated 3hrs and it took 7 hrs. We explained that her list was longer and more involved than it had sounded on the phone, and that our handyman had been led to believe that she wanted the work done, even if it took a long time. There was also an issue about us leaving a mess, which arose because our handyman (mistakenly) thought her vacuum cleaner was in a locked cupboard and not available. We conceded that it would have been helpful to have called her during the day to double-check that she was OK with the amount of time the work was taking. Here is what we actually wrote.

After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing the customer requested a detailed breakdown of exactly how much time was spent on which tasks. It can be very time-consuming to prepare that sort of thing, and inevitably you leave off something which you didn't think was important but the customer does, or whatever. So instead we suggested the handyman return to her property and spend a few minutes showing her exactly what he did, and how long he spent doing it (much easier, and quicker, to do face-to-face, than in writing.) We suggested that by email here, and by letter, and then again by e-mail.

She declined this offer, and continued to insist on a written account. I'm not sure why, perhaps she didn't want to take another hour or so off work in the morning, or perhaps she worried about an awkward confrontation with the handyman.

After some deliberation, we decided that our bill (which by now we had discounted to £360 to try and secure payment) was completely fair and that we had done more than we reasonably needed to "justify" the total. We advised the customer that she needed to pay or we would treat it as we do any other unpaid bill (i.e. eventually file a claim in court), by e-mail here. She paid in the end, after receiving a formal final demand threatening legal action.

This customer is almost certainly dissatisfied. Should we have just written off the loss (which would have been £180, as she was offering to pay £200+VAT vs actual bill of £380+VAT)? is that £180 loss worth it to keep that customer happy? My view is no: by that stage customer would probably not have been happy even if we had written off the entire bill. She felt she was being ripped off, and if she has got that impression of us in her head, it is unlikely we are going to be able to change it.

But most importantly is what is the "right" thing to do? Did the circumstances merit writing off a large chunk of the bill? I don't think so.

It is also not very fair on the handyman who has worked hard for a full day, only to be told that (effectively) we don't think his work is worth charging for. He still gets paid, obviously, but it is a little demoralising for him to hear that, after he has worked hard to solve the customers problems and fix lots of things in her house we have decided not to charge much for that.

Throughout this dispute, we were aware that the customer worked for a (quality national) newspaper (she hadn't mentioned this, but it was obvious from her e-mail address), creating an even bigger temptation just to cave in and waive the bill entirely. But it would not have been right to give a customer special treatment in this sort of situation, just because we fear she might write about it (or tell a colleague who writes about it). We have to decide based purely on our understanding of the facts. Did we do 7 hours of work? Yes. Did we explicitly say that we expected the bill to be nearly £400? Probably not, and if we did say that, we obviously didn't communicate that effectively to the customer (unless she was simply pretending to be surprised at the size of the bill, but that's unlikely). So could we have managed her expectations better? Definitely. But should she reasonably have expected that the bill could have reached £400, after he initial conversation with Robin on the morning of his visit? Yes. We charge by the half-hour, and anyone should reasonably know that a rough estimate given over the phone is gonig to be just that: a very rough estimate.

These situations are very, very rare: we could get all corporate about it and give everyone in the office a little script to a say every time they offer an opinion on how long something might take: "Please note that is a rough estimate only, based on what you have told me. If it turns out there are more tasks than you have mentioned; or some tasks prove to be more complex than normal, then, the total time required will be longer.". And then they could ask "Have you understaood that?" and tick a little box on the customer's record saying "Estimate disclaimer read out and customer acknowledged".

But 99% of customers would find that irritating and perhaps a little insulting to their intelligence. Of course the time will increase if I add more tasks. Of course you can't estimate exactly how long something will take based on a 60-second phone call. I just want a ball-park figure, don't bombard me with this legal yada-yada.

We could also present the customer with written terms and conditions at the start of the job, and somewhere in those T&Cs would be something about accuracy of estimates, we charge for as long as it takes, etc. etc. But we don't want to do that either. There is nothing worse for breaking the rapport with a customer than to present them, as soon as you walk into their house, with an A4 sheet of close-typed legalese and ask them to sign to say they understand it.

So we don't do written terms & conditions either. Which means that, every so often, we have a minor dispute which might, maybe, have been more easily resolved if we had a few paragraphs of legal waffle to point to. But at the cost of mildly irritating every single other customer.

So there you go, my first shot at publishing the detail of how we deal with a customer complaint. I am satisfied with the way we dealt with this and think it does, overall, reflect well on us. Although it is disappointing that we were unable to resolve it in a way that kept the customer happy. You might think differently, I'd be interested to hear.


Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce,

Looking at your site with an interest in a franchise.

I spent many years in the retail motor trade, in those days regarded with even more disdain than estate agents, solicitors and comms companies. In this situation it depends if you think the client will continue to use you without abusing you. If you think there is mileage in future business with the client, state your case briefly, apologise, seek a financial middle ground, don’t make an issue if you can’t and accept the offer – life’s too short and time too valuable.

If it is apparent or becomes apparent that a client is always going to be a pain, my standard line was (after the cheque cleared): I’m sorry that we are not good enough for you. Here is list of other companies that will suit you better.

Doing business close to the BBC we had a number of tight-fisted, ego-addled clients who all knew each other. Word would spread around that we had given someone the ‘Spanish Violin’ (elbow), and were often congratulated for doing so. (Names withheld)

If a client is unreasonable with you they are unreasonable with everyone, and everyone knows it. Waving some clients goodbye demonstrated to the people who worked for me that I’m on their side when an injustice has been done.

Stick to your principles, they’re the only ones you’ve got.

Will contact re franchise enquiry as I love the website and the honesty, and still think that customer service is appalling in this country.

Regards, Jan

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