Complaint Handling and Online Reputation Defense for Contractors
Eventually, every contractor will receive a complaint from a client, but it’s not necessarily bad news. A complaint provides the opportunity to learn what your client really thinks about your service, which gives you the chance to consider making changes to how you do things in your company. Complaints are actually more valuable than compliments, in some ways. Welcome them. Clients who go to the trouble of complaining are usually interested in giving you the chance to make things right and make them happy.
The Number One rule for receiving a complaint from a former client is to listen. Remain calm and composed. A person calling with a complaint may be insulting and rude, but you must be professional throughout.
Assure the client that you will do what you can to help him or her. Have a pen and paper handy. Write down any notes that are critical to the conversation, such as dates, what happened, who discovered the problem, whether it’s been corrected, etc.
Listen to what the client says. The first couple of sentences will tell you exactly what problem(s) the client is experiencing. Pay close attention to what is being said without interrupting. If the caller is upset, rambling, and not able to verbalize well, then assist them by asking questions, such as, “What happened after that?” or “Could you tell me more about that?” or “What happened next?” Finally, be sure to ask, “How can I help you?” or “What is it that you would like us to do?”
Before proceeding to a resolution, make sure that you understand the situation. Ask questions to see if there’s been a simple misunderstanding that can be easily resolved. If the complaint is more than just a misunderstanding, ask specific questions so that you can understand the exact nature of the complaint and the problem your client is experiencing. Summarize what you understand the problem to be. The caller will acknowledge or correct you. Try, “So, what you’re saying is…” or “Do I understand you correctly or did I miss the point?” Be patient and repeat this process until you understand exactly what the problem is.
Another important thing to do while fielding a complaint is to express empathy with the caller. Don’t be patronizing, but do let the caller know that you understand their stress and unhappiness. Tell them again that you will help them.
If there is a solution, make sure that the client has no doubt as to the specifics about how the issue will be resolved. Ask the client to confirm that they agree with the proposed solution to their situation. Ask, “How do you feel about the solution I’ve suggested?” or “How does that sound to you?” or “Are you in agreement with that so far?”
If a staffer is fielding the complaint but the caller wants to speak to the owner of the company, s/he should try the following: “Mrs. Smith, please give me the opportunity to resolve this matter for you. I’m sure I’ll be able to help. But if you’re still not satisfied, I’ll get the owner on the phone with you.”
If the caller uses profanity, you might say, “I know you’re upset, but there’s no reason to use profanity. Please continue to discuss your complaint without using those words.”
As a last resort, you may want to suggest that the caller call you back after he or she has had a chance to calm down, but never hang up on a caller, and don’t be patronizing—always use empathy, and keep them on the phone with you to resolve the situation whenever possible.
You may have to schedule a face-to-face meeting with the client to defuse the situation and bring a quick resolution. The goal is to work together, to prevent their filing a lawsuit, and to come up with a resolution that is mutually agreeable.
Another tactic is to ask the client to propose a solution. Letting the client make the opening gambit lets you know exactly where you stand. Perhaps the client’s solution is less costly than what you were going to propose.
TIP: If your client doesn’t have a solution in mind, perhaps you can propose a discount on a future service. This way, you get an opportunity to continue to work for the client.
Remember: An unhappy, inarticulate customer is not to be dismissed out of hand just because dealing with their complaint may be unpleasant or take a while. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to learn from the experience and improve your business, or wonder whether you’ve created ill will that will haunt your ability to secure future jobs.
Here are some statistics that can help make you a believer in practicing good customer service by obtaining feedback and resolving complaints.
According to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs:
- For every complaint you hear, there are 26 additional clients with unresolved problems, and six of these are serious. You will never hear from these 26 again, and they are the ones who could tell you how to make your business better.
- Up to 70% of the clients who complain will do business with your company again if you resolve their problem. If they feel you acted quickly and to their satisfaction, up to 96% of them will do business with you again, and they will probably refer other people to you.
- A dissatisfied client will tell nine to 15 people about their experience. And about 10% of your dissatisfied clients will tell more than 20 people about their problem. You cannot possibly afford the advertising costs it would take to overcome this negative word-of-mouth publicity. And if it goes online, it’s there forever.
- It costs five to six times as much to get a new (first-time) client as it does to keep a current one.
Do you know why most clients stop using your services? The White House Office of Consumer Affairs says that:
- 1% simply die;
- 3% move out of your service area;
- 14% are dissatisfied with your services;
- 9% leave because of your competition; and, most importantly…
- 68% stop using your services because of an attitude of indifference by your company’s staff. For most people, it was YOUR attitude that mattered most.
Make sure that your company is doing the right thing when it comes to satisfying clients.
The Apology Letter
Never ruin an apology with an excuse. —Benjamin Franklin
Sometimes, you simply have to fall on your sword. Don’t quibble or qualify. If you were in the wrong, say so. You’re already liable, so, contrary to popular belief, not admitting you screwed up doesn’t make you less responsible—it makes you appear cowardly and lacking in integrity. So, do the right thing and apologize. In doing so, you may just avoid a lawsuit, but you will surely have done all you could and you will have upheld your own Code of Ethics. A reasonable client will see that and thank you for it, and it will likely lead to positive word-of-mouth, repeat business, and referrals.
Consider the following phrases in drafting your apology:
- “We apologize for…”
- “I was troubled to discover…”
- “Please accept our apology for…”
- “Please forgive me for…”
- “We acknowledge that we…”
- “I terribly regret…”
- “Can you suggest how we may resolve this?”
- “To ensure that something like this never happens again, we will…”
- “We are taking immediate steps to…”
- “Next time, I will…”
- “To make up for our error, we…”
- “We will not charge you for…”
- “We will credit you for…”
- “What I can offer you is…”
- “We are immediately shipping you…”
TIP #1: Create a complaint-taking template for your company to use so that when your staff or you answer the phone, you won’t be thrown off track and miss essential details that you need to resolve the complaint, especially if the caller is upset or rambling, or you’re having a hectic day.
TIP #2: Convene a meeting to use complaints as a learning tool for the entire company, including subcontractors and office staff.
After the Complaint is Resolved
There are two things you might want to procure from your client after a complaint is successfully resolved. The first is a general release. This is particularly important if you solved the issue by refunding money. The second is a testimonial.
Sample General Release
The following is a sample of a general release that you can customize to use for your company:
TO ALL TO WHOM THESE PRESENTS SHALL COME OR MAY CONCERN, KNOW THAT (Your Client) as the RELEASOR, for good and valuable consideration received from (Your Company Name), as the RELEASEE, the receipt and adequacy of which is hereby acknowledged, each hereby releases and discharges the RELEASEE, each of the RELEASEE’S subsidiaries and their respective principals, affiliates, related entities, shareholders, officers, directors, agents, employees and their respective heirs, executors, administrators, successors and assigns from all actions, causes of action, suits, debts, dues, sums of money, accounts, reckonings, bonds, bills, specialties, covenants, controversies, agreements, promises, variances, trespasses, damages, judgments, extants, executions, claims and demands whatsoever, in law, admiralty or equity, which against the RELEASEE, the RELEASOR and the RELEASOR’S heirs, executors, administrators, successors and assigns ever had, now have, or hereafter can, shall or may, have for, upon or by reason of any matter, cause or thing whatsoever from the beginning of the world to the day of the date of this RELEASE, solely in connection with the contracting services performed by (Your Company Name) arising out of that certain work performed around (Date or Month/Year Work was Performed).
Whenever the text hereof requires, the use of a singular number shall include the appropriate plural number as the text of the number within the instrument may require.
This RELEASE may not be changed orally.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, the RELEASOR has executed this RELEASE on the ______day of ________________________, ____.
(For a Corporation)
___________________________ By: ______________________________________
(For an individual)
Both Releasor and Releasee will sign, in the form required (corporation or individual)
The second item to procure after a complaint is resolved is a testimonial. This can be used in your marketing programs just like any other testimonial, even if it reveals that there was initially a complaint. These may go along the lines of: “I had a complaint about the work that was done… and ABC Contracting resolved it to my satisfaction immediately.”
Most clients are generally stressed about their project before you’ve even set foot on their property, so this kind of testimonial can serve as a great reassurance to prospects that even if they’re like most homeowners who deal with most contractors, they’ll be happy in the end if they use your services.
Your Good Name Online
A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person.
You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com
What you do online regarding your business is only half the equation; those who use your services, and business names that are similar to yours, can affect your brand and reputation, too. That’s why it’s important to monitor your online reputation, as well as your brand.
Your Virtual Identity
There are online reputation-monitoring and brand-infringement services that will do this kind of tracking for you, but a quick perusal shows that a number of these services have problems with their own websites, such as their navigation, contact information, credentials, homepage appearance, and even the spelling and grammar on their site’s pages. If they can’t be trusted to keep their own online presence professional-looking and error-free, should you trust them with your site? More to the point is that you’re paying someone else to do what you should be doing for yourself for a fee that doesn’t guarantee you 100% protection. You’re not a corporation that employs a gaggle of lawyers; keep your overhead low and keep on top of your own online reputation. At least in the initial stages, you should do this monitoring personally.
An easy way to monitor online activity related to your business is to do a search of your business name. You can do this weekly or daily to see what pops up. You may be surprised to discover that other businesses have mentioned you on their sites. Are these associations positive? Are they valid—do you actually have a professional relationship with them, or are they attempting to piggyback on your success or name recognition? Have they co-opted your trademarked tagline? It’s important to acknowledge these positive and negative associations as soon as you discover them, to either cultivate and expand on them, or to shut them down and issue a general warning that you are monitoring your brand and are prepared to legally escalate any brand or copyright infringements, should you discover them. Never underestimate the temerity of an unscrupulous online competitor or copyright thief. By the same token, never underestimate the power of your threat to take a person to court if they infringe on your brand. Most threats work instantly, as these types of fly-by-nighters don’t want to chance discovery and prosecution, which can include federal criminal charges, as well as civil penalties.
You can also be notified of instances of your business name being searched using Google Alerts. This also works for brand names, slogans and proprietary product names and services. Anyone favorably discussing your products and services online creates information that you can post on your website. (You can do this without their permission; once it’s accessible on the Internet, it’s generally fair game to re-post. But if the information was written by a past client, it’s good public relations to ask to re-use their comments on your site as a courtesy, as well as to get more feedback.)
Perhaps a blogger has mentioned her encounter with your business; read what she’s written, including any comments on her post. Online reviews can be informative and valuable. You may want to ask to link to the blogger’s positive comments, or to copy them to your site. Cultivate these positive associations.
You may discover that someone has said something unfavorable about your or your business. This is always disappointing, but it can be just as valuable and informative as positive feedback—even more so. The first question you should ask yourself is whether the criticism is legitimate. If it’s a comment about your office staffers, for example, don’t assume that they can do no wrong; investigate the claim as fully as possible. Then, ask yourself whether you can improve your products and services based on the feedback.
Protect Yourself from Being Libeled Online
Some negative feedback is not instructive or constructive. It may be merely unkind commentary, or what used to be called “flaming.” You may have to let certain criticisms go; the more personal or hysterical a flame is, the more it speaks to the commenter’s state of mind rather than your service, and you will have to trust that other readers can make that same judgment for themselves.
But if a business or individual has made a false claim about you or your business, you will have to take action. You can’t let untrue or libelous claims go unanswered. Recycled information on the Internet has a way of becoming “fact,” and you need to stop it as soon as you become aware of it and take counter-measures to protect your online reputation and brand.
If the commentary is not merely negative but defamatory, you can shut it down by emailing the offender a warning. First, find out who posted the comments. Most negative commentary is posted anonymously or by using an online username that hides the owner’s email address. Can you tell who the person is by what they’ve written, such as a disgruntled ex-employee or a particularly unhappy client? If the person’s email is not readily available based on the comment, and the comments are false and designed to injure your reputation, you should write to the site’s administrator and warn them to take down the comments. Neither the owner of a website or blog nor a website that specializes in online consumer reviews is immune from legal action for allowing false or libelous posts to remain if you’ve lodged a formal complaint asking that they remove them. Under U.S. libel law, a website’s legal liability for publishing defamatory comments is as great as the person posting it, and before things reach a litigious stage, the website administrators will likely delete the offending post. (You should be aware that a deleted post can remain online through the site’s own caches, but that’s the nature of the Internet, rather than a fault of the site administrator—nothing online can ever really be “deleted.”)
Remember, though, that defamatory comments must be false, and they must also threaten to harm your professional reputation and damage your business. If matters were to proceed to an actual lawsuit, as the plaintiff in a libel case, you would have to prove injury based on the comment’s falsehoods. Otherwise, the defendants could claim—and win—on their rights to protected speech under the First Amendment, which includes unflattering and negative reviews, even if they’ve resorted to childish or even profane name-calling. Pull apart these comments to discern what is merely dissatisfied bloviating, and what is opinion presented as fact. You may wish to pursue legal advice to understand these distinctions better.
The following is a sample letter you can use to try to stop defamatory comments when you know who has made them.
Dear [Client/Blog Poster/etc.]:
You made defamatory statements about me that damaged or threaten to damage my reputation as a contractor.
Specifically, you made the following false statements:
[Describe each false statement, when it was made, what was said or written, and who heard or read the statement. Consider attaching proof of the statement and/or copies of the defamatory writings.]
The law is clear that when a person makes defamatory statements about a private person in his trade, business or profession, it is considered defamation per se. In such cases, the law presumes injury and the plaintiff need not prove actual damages. The U.S. Supreme Court determined that this principle is fully consistent with the U.S. Constitution. [See, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).]
I demand that you immediately retract your defamatory statements. I specifically ask that you take the following actions: [State what corrective action you want the potential defendant to take].
Your willingness to take these actions immediately will play an important role in whether I decide to move forward with a defamation lawsuit against you.
If you refuse to take these steps, a judge or jury may consider your refusal as evidence of malice and may award me exemplary damages.
If you believe your statements are not defamatory, I request that you provide me with all documents that you’re relying on to support your contention. I also request the name, address, phone number and email address of each person you believe can testify that the statements are not defamatory. I need this information to determine whether to move forward with a lawsuit against you.
[Your Company Name]
[Your Phone Number]
[Your Email Address]
Build Your Own Reputation Through Website Maintenance
In addition to monitoring the reach of your brand online, including comments and trademark usage, you can do a lot to maintain control and get regular search engine-optimization activity by maintaining a dynamic website.
You may think that since you’ve already posted your products, services, business hours, location, testimonials, and some great photos, that’s all you really need. But you can make your site robust and interactive by adding more content. Consider adding a special section that features interesting links that are related to your business activity. For example, do you promote green building materials? Then post a link to some government-sponsored information that’s relevant to your remarks and products.
Write an article (or hire a writer occasionally) who can add value to your website by writing relevant and topical articles or brief posts. Visitors to your site will appreciate that you don’t let your website languish, but that you take an active interest in news and trends that affect your industry.
Take advantage of the power of SEO. For blog posts and articles, make sure you use keywords and track-backs as much as possible. You want your special website content to be robust and searchable. When prospective clients do a generic search online, you want them to find you first (or second, or third).
It’s important to strike a balance between what you can do to pump up your online presence, and what you should leave to others. Don’t get too over-invested in the typical bells and whistles found on many websites that are screaming to get noticed and make themselves obnoxious in the process. Paid ads and click-per-views are not recommended; unlike a stand-alone blog, your site is not your product—it’s promoting your product. Your site is used to sell your services. If you do include paid or sponsored ads, make sure they’re legitimate and that you have a sustained relationship with those vendors. Otherwise, not only will you be putting money into the pockets of counterfeit vendors, but your association with them will tarnish your own brand and reputation, and it will be nearly impossible to recover unless you change your business name and launch a whole new marketing campaign, which will be costly and time-intensive. Make these sponsorships relevant to your business and mutually beneficial. Any sites you link to your site should have link-backs, which you should verify occasionally.
TIP: Read this article on Websites for Contractors.
It’s also a good idea to occasionally search for businesses in your area to see if they’re worth cultivating for an online bump in SEO and name-recognition. Or, if someone has taken a hit (such as one large engineering firm near Denver whose commercial buildings were found to be structurally faulty), you may want to consider removing their name or logo from your site, as well as pulling your implied endorsement from theirs. This is a delicate decision for a number of reasons. Legally speaking, any agreement or contract must be modified beforehand. But don’t allow someone else’s faltering reputation to indirectly compromise yours.
Remember that business reputations in a changing economy are dynamic, so monitor yours regularly, and become your own PR expert so that you can maintain control over your brand and good name.