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When Customers Call To Complain, Listen, Understand, Act

Few people like dealing with customer complaints.  However, if handled properly, the right resolutions can strengthen inter-company relationships.  Responsiveness, active listening, reasonable proposals and appropriate action are the key factors for success.  Every graphic arts professional knows things can and will go wrong.  Companies that effectively resolve complaints will do better than those that don’t.

Most people don’t enjoy complaining.  When receiving an ear-full, remember that the person complaining is probably feeling threatened or wronged in some way.  Your initial tone and attitude will have a significant impact on whether you and your client will work as a team or as adversaries, while searching for an acceptable resolution.  During the first contact, put your customer at ease by making it clear you want to thoroughly understand the problem and help make things right.  Practice “active” listening.  Focus on what the caller is saying, empathize with the problem and resist the urge to interrupt, regardless of your initial reaction as to the argument’s validity.

Never interrupt a customer who is complaining, especially if they’re demonstrably angry.  Once they’re finished, thank them for bringing the problem to your attention.  Why?  Those who don’t complain just quietly take their business elsewhere.   The first step toward problem resolution is making sure the person doing the complaining feels listened to.  Regardless of your initial assessment, avoid patronizing, defensive and accusatory comments.  Focus only on the problem and related issues.  Close the initial conversation by making it clear that you want the issue resolved promptly and to everyone’s satisfaction.

Sometimes a customer needs to blow off steam and talk themselves right through the problem without requiring any intervention on your part.  If you sense that your customer is just venting, don’t do much more than gently guide the conversation, much like a boat’s rudder.  Good salespeople know that once the sale has been made, they should stop selling and immediately write the order.  Similarly, when customers talk themselves through problems, stop talking and move on to greener pastures.

Be A Detective
Determining the facts is critical.  Usually people complain because they have a customer that’s complaining to them.  Under pressure, some people spring into action without fully understanding the nature and scope of the problem.  A better approach is to put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and get the facts before offering any solution.  Above all, stressed people hate having “favorable” decisions reversed at a later time.

Often, representatives from your company need to see the bad product firsthand.  Customers frequently open a couple of boxes from one skid, examine the contents and prematurely make a panicked phone call.  Onsite investigations may reveal that bad product is only a small portion of the job, and consequently is less of an issue than initially thought.  Most customer complaints are subjective, meaning they’re based on opinions, not facts.  If everyone remains objective, then fair solutions usually become apparent.

Reasonable Expectations Of Bindery Performance
Folds on color breaks must be right on or they look awful.  Unfortunately, many folding problems happen long before the bindery ever sees the job.  There is little any folding operator can do if an over&over fold is laid out with even-sized panels, or if there is web weave, web bounce, cut-off bounce, paper stretch or poorly registered image backup.  Moreover, excessive varnish and press powder causes roller buildup and quickly changes the coefficient of friction on fold rollers.  As a result, fold positions move as roller grips change.  While the original settings may have been perfect, printing variations and residue buildup will result in the appearance of bad folding.

Different sets of problems happen with remoistenable glues.  As moist air within cartons cool, condensation activates remoist glue and sheets stick together.  Regardless of whether the job can be “saved,” expensive intervention will be necessary, which wastes both time and money.  Unfortunately, printers and binderies can both do everything right, yet still get bad gluing results.  As long as the discussion remains strictly on the facts, both sides can, and should, work together to minimize the mutual hurt.

Miniature folded products need special planning because they usually are mechanically inserted into boxes, bottles or other packages at high speeds.  Automation compatibility is a must.  For example, if a small-format pharmaceutical instruction sheet doesn’t lie flat, it might “tent” in a bottle and “short” the product count.  Layflat requirements need to be specified early.

Dealing With Irate Customers
If a customer is hopping mad, it’s appropriate to say, “You have every right to feel that way.”  This approach demonstrates empathy and legitimizes the other person’s feelings.  If done right, you won’t concede anything prematurely.  A natural human reaction is to defend oneself from attack.  Irate customers trigger self-protection defense mechanisms, which frequently result in comments like, “It’s not our fault.”  Phrases like this only fan the flames of anger and make people madder.

When your company unmistakably is at fault, learn from your experience.  Don’t single out a scapegoat for your company’s shortcomings.  Stand behind your work and do what it takes to correct the problem.  Profits will be hurt, but it’s better to take a short-term financial hit than acquire a reputation for running from self-made messes.  After all, a graphic arts company’s most valuable asset is industry trust.

If a process or product fails, getting the facts is important.  For example, if glue doesn’t function as intended, determining which of the components failed – ink, glue, paper, or paper coatings – usually can be determined scientifically and fairly.  If one of the goals is to preserve a good future working relationship, sticking to the facts is essential.

When a project becomes a disaster and both sides continue to work amicably, but can’t agree on a solution, third party arbitration is a possibility.  However, this route only works between honest people with honest differences.  There are industry organizations that can help.  For example, if your problem is about inks, glues or paper coatings, samples can be tested by GATF (Graphic Arts Technical Foundation) or the Chicago Testing Laboratory.  Lastly, avoid using our legal system if at all possible.

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Think of complaints as cries for help, regardless of whether the message is rudely delivered.  Actively listen, don’t take complaints personally, empathize, focus on the facts and get to quick and fair resolutions.  In short, when customers call to complain, listen, understand and act – in that order.

Kevin Rickard is Vice President of Operations for Rickard Bindery and an Officer of the Binding Industries of America.  Rickard Bindery specializes in discovering solutions to challenging folding, saddle stitching, gluing and other bindery jobs.  Kevin can be reached at (800) 747-1389.