My company serves nearly 3 million visitors a year. Though we always try for 100% satisfaction, some customers are going to slip through the cracks and be dissatisfied. Each year, I get maybe 10 visitors who are severely dissatisfied, think they were mistreated, want to call their Congressman, are going to sue me, etc. I would say that these complaints eventually land on my desk but I actually look at every single comment card and letter and review that we get from customers and personally am involved with every single complaint of any sort. Anyway, 10 or so are severe issues with a very upset customer that get to me without having been resolved in the field.
Folks who are involved in customer service will tell you that of these complaints, there will likely be a range of blame. In some cases we screwed up. In some cases no one screwed up but there was a mismatch of expectations. And in some cases the customer was acting like a total asshole and was entirely to blame for the whole affair. Sometimes it is hard to parse out after the fact which case is which -- something I wrote about here. When these major complaints get to me, here is my guide to how I respond:
When we screw up: "I am very sorry we did a poor job and you had a bad experience. I am going to personally investigate immediately and we are going to make changes so this does not happen again -- but in the mean time, I want to refund your money and give you a certificate for some free camping so you can come back in the future and give us another chance to serve you well."
When the customer broke the rules and acted like a total jerk: "I am very sorry we did a poor job and you had a bad experience. I am going to personally investigate immediately and we are going to make changes so this does not happen again -- but in the mean time, I want to refund your money and give you a certificate for some free camping so you can come back in the future and give us another chance to serve you well."
When the exact situation is unclear: "I am very sorry we did a poor job and you had a bad experience. I am going to personally investigate immediately and we are going to make changes so this does not happen again -- but in the mean time, I want to refund your money and give you a certificate for some free camping so you can come back in the future and give us another chance to serve you well."
In any of these cases, if the customer describes poor behavior by my employees, I will tell them that "the behavior you are describing is absolutely unacceptable and, as I said, I am going to investigate personally as soon as we get off the phone." You don't have to admit the behavior. It is common that angry customers will dress up a story with a few added descriptions of outlandish employee behavior that may not actually be what happened. You will try to figure that out later in the investigation. But give the customer as much as you can. If the customer said the employee used profanity, then it is perfectly fine to say "you are right, ms. customers, use of profanity by our employees is absolutely unacceptable" even if you suspect the employee did no such thing.
Giving this very positive response to customers who may have been bad actors or may be exaggerating can be hard because my local managers want to get very mad at me -- "Warren, don't you understand, he was a BAD customer. You can't reward him for being a BAD customer." To which I will say: "First, you and I have not talked so I don't know yet if he was truly a BAD customer. We may be the ones who screwed up. But second, even if they were bad in some way, I am not rewarding a bad customer, I am trying to avoid a bad Tripadvisor review which will sit there on the Internet forever like a turd you can't flush. And third, you seem to be trying to teach this customer a lesson, and make them realize they have been bad. Even if the customer is really a jerk, this is never, ever ever ever going to happen. You will never ever convince a jerk that they are a jerk, because almost by definition jerks last self-awareness, so stop trying."
We do a lot of training on this. I tell folks all the time that if we have a customer like this who gets to me, I AM going to apologize and AM going to give them a refund and AM going to give them some free camping. It doesn't mean that I am undermining the folks in the field, it means that this is smart business practice, particularly in this age of Internet reviews. I tell my managers that they are letting their ego and pride stand in the way of having a customer walk away more satisfied, and if they refuse to check their ego, they are delegating the task of being humble upwards to me. And over time, the good news is that most of my managers have gotten the message and have started emulating me so fewer and fewer of these ever reach me, they are solved much earlier in the field.
Postscript: The first reaction I get from other business people is -- "don't you get taken advantage of and give out refunds to people who are just posturing about bad service just so they can get a refund?" And my answer is "yes". But recognize that we have had over $100 million in revenues in this company since I started it, and we have perhaps paid $500 or $1000 is false refunds, or about .001% of revenues. I don't think .001% is very much to pay for the very high customer satisfaction rate we have. But you would be surprised at the number of people that just can't let it go. I don't know what this is called psychologically, but I will give another example. We have a number of sites where the entrance station is not staffed on certain days and payment is on the honor system. I have people who work for me who really get upset with me, telling me I simply HAVE to staff that gatehouse because some people are not paying. You are being CHEATED! I say that I am perfectly aware people are not paying, but it costs, all-in, probably $120-$150 to have a person sit in that gatehouse for 8 hours. In that time perhaps 15 cars will come in. At $6 apiece, even if every single one of them is cheating (and they do not, we have very good compliance in most honor system locations) I would be paying $150 to collect an extra $90 of revenue. That would be insane. But somehow the thought of lost revenue just makes some people crazy, no matter how expensive it is to chase it down.