THE BLOG
12/06/2010 01:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Gift of the Heard Complaint

Nobody likes to hear a complaint or criticism. But far worse than the complaint you hear is the complaint you don't hear -- which is most of them.

On average, just 4 percent of dissatisfied customers will actually complain. But an estimated 80 percent of those you don't hear from are anything but silent, telling an average of ten people each how very dissatisfied they are.

If you hear four complaints a month, you can be confident that you really had 100 dissatisfied customers, and 800 people heard about it. Ouch.

Put another way, every complaint you hear has twenty-four silent friends. All of them are probably just as ticked off, but they will dump you without leaving so much as a "Dear John."

That's why the complaint you actually hear is pure gold. Each one reveals nasty realities that would otherwise remain hidden.

Ignoring nasty realities doesn't make them go away. Suppose you had a tiny little ignorable tumor in your head. Would you rather find it and deal with it -- or whistle your oblivious way to an early demise?

Complaints are the MRIs of the business world. Knowing about a problem lurking under the surface can literally save the life of your business.

The reason is clear: just 4 percent of those who have complaints actually voice those complaints, meaning 96 percent of your dissatisfied customers will not bother to let you know.

The out-loud complainer has done you an enormous favor. By breaking the silence, he or she has given you a fighting chance to find and fix the problem before the complaint spreads to other customers and potential customers. That's worth dinner, a movie, and a big sloppy kiss.

It's critical to create a complaint response plan. Don't just mollify the complainer -- that won't reach the Silent 24. Instead, you'll want to assess, learn and reward:

  1. Assess the problem and take action to change the core system that created it in the first place;
  2. Learn from the problem to avoid duplicating it in the future; and
  3. Reward the complainer in no uncertain terms.

For various legal and ethical reasons, you might want to skip the sloppy kiss.