Posts tagged ‘complaint handling’

March 29, 2011

Dealing with Complaints: Is it Really Worth Saying Sorry?

In light of the new drive by Lloyds Bank to reduce levels of customer complaints, ( currently running at about 2000 per day, new research on apologising makes thought-provoking reading.

Psychologists report that people who have a complaint believe that an apology will help but, when they actually get one, it doesn’t seem to live up to expectations.

David De Cremer and Chris Reinders Folmer compared how people felt when they simply imagined that they had received an apology, to how people felt who really did receive one. 

They found that an imagined apology was valued more than a real apology, suggesting that the thousands of people complaining to the banking industry every day are probably expecting an apology to help the situation more than it actually will. 

So the question for all customer service providers is: is it worth apologising at all when simply uttering the words to someone who deserves one will run the risk of disappointing them further?  Perhaps customer complaints handlers should simply not apologise.

Well, of course they should.  We all know how infuriating it is when the instigator of our frustration or annoyance refuses to take responsibility for causing inconvenience or distress.  Saying sorry is, or should be, a clear indicator of acceptance of responsibility for both the situation and for the effect on the other person.

However, to complicate matters for complaints handlers, the apology needs to be perceived as sincere.  Anything that sounds like it is simply a scripted, standardised apology with no depth or genuine appreciation of the “hurt” caused is not going to improve a customer’s impressions at all. 

Professor Michael McCullough of the University of Miami and author of “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct”, argues that a genuine apology works because it encourages empathy in the recipient which increases the recipient’s ability to forgive.

Of course, in a formal complaint handling department such as the 200-strong dedicated unit that Lloyds has just set up to handle their 2000 complaints a day*, the person giving the apology is unlikely to be the actual person, or body, responsible for creating the problem.  However, the response to someone understanding your distress, acknowledging responsibility and committing to helping sort it out may well transfer to the wider organization through a variety of typical cognitive processes.  In a corporate setting this humanizes and connects the corporate service provider with the customer through the emotional connection between the two people involved in the apology.

* For information, Lloyds doesn’t compare badly to others in the finance sector like Barclays and Santander who have more than double the amount of complaints per account.

Given the personal connection required to effect a sincere apology, clearly the skill and the disposition of the people staffing Lloyds’ new complaint-handling centre are going to be central to the effectiveness of the department in improving customer satisfaction with the company.

And returning to the research on the disappointing nature of real apologies, it suggests that even the most sincere of apologies will fall short.  Professor de Cremer suggests that his results indicate that “…an apology is a first step in the reconciliation process (but)…you need to show that you will do something else.”  There needs to be considerably more substance to the interaction to leave the customer feeling satisfied with the situation and the organization.

Much to do, banks, much to do.



1. De Cremer, D. & Reinders Folmer, C.P. (2011). How Important is an Apology to You? Forecasting Errors in Evaluating the Value of Apologies. Psychological Science, 22(1), 45-48.

2. McCullough, Michael E. (2008), Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, Wiley and Sons, ISBN 078797756X, 9780787977566

March 10, 2011

Natwest’s Progress Report on their Customer Charter: How much difference has it made?

Natwest’s customers may have been pleased when last June they announced their 14 Customer Commitments designed to make Natwest “Britain’s Most Helpful Bank”.

However, there may also have been some concern that the targets they set were somewhat modest, particularly on the measures to do with how people feel about their dealings with the bank.

For example, aiming for a target of 9 out of 10 customers being very satisfied with how friendly and helpful the service is, should prove far from impossible. Even more modestly, Natwest set themselves a goal of 75% of customers being satisfied in the way that their complaints were handled: that should be achievable surely?

To learn then that Natwest’s first progress report shows that they have not achieved these targets, and that levels of satisfaction with complaint handling is down at 57%, may have been a bit of a let-down.

Of course when dealing with changes in organisational culture, 9 months is not long. Natwest say they have been re-training all their customer service staff in complaint handling and that “we know we have more work to do” on customer satisfaction with the friendliness and helpfulness of staff.

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