When It Comes To Customers, No Bad News Can Be Terrible News

During a recent consulting engagement, a senior leader posed a question that took me aback: “Should we be asking for complaints?”

The ensuing discussion with the leader’s team was enlightening and reaffirmed some essential truths about customer feedback.

Understanding the Value of Complaints

Here are a few dynamics about customer feedback that emerged from our discussion:

  • Complaints are a Gift: Complaints offer your businesses a window into what’s not working from the customer’s perspective, which allows for precise and effective adjustment.
  • The Future Must Be Guided by the Customer: Customer feedback and understanding is the source code for relevant service delivery evolution.
  • Silence Isn’t Golden: It’s tempting to assume that no feedback means full steam ahead. However, an absence of complaints shouldn’t be confused with customer satisfaction or engagement. Often, silence reflects customer apathy or resignation. In those instances, customers don’t care enough or trust you enough to complain.

Should We Be Asking Directly for Complaints?

After an engaging conversation, the group came to a consensus. Asking for complaints isn’t a wise strategy, nor is asking for compliments. Both approaches are prejudicial and can produce misleading results. When you ask for complaints, you are essentially putting customers into a position to tell you ‘What you did wrong today.” You are asking them to look for your shortcomings. Conversely, many restaurant managers do a “table touch” by starting with a question like, “Was everything excellent and delicious?” This type of inquiry pulls for complimentary responses and signals you don’t want to hear about breakdowns.

Rather than seeking complaints or compliments, I am a fan of staring with neutral questions like “How was everything?” followed by constructive and feedback-seeking queries like “What might we have done better today?”

Effective Customer Listening

The art of extracting meaningful insights without explicitly asking for complaints lies in how you frame your feedback approach:

  • Broad Inquiries: Instead of diving into specifics, start by understanding a customer’s overall impression of your product or service. A simple “How was your experience with us?” can be an effective opener.
  • Tailored Questions: Following the general query, guide the conversation toward more specific opportunities. This typically involves questions like, “What else could we have done to make your experience more positive?” These types of follow-up questions show genuine interest and produce actionable insights.

Remember, we shouldn’t be fishing for complaints or compliments. Instead, we should foster an environment for customers to share honest feedback.

Once you’ve received the “gift of feedback,” (positive, neutral, or negative), it’s essential that you give the customer a gift in return. Often this involves extending a “thank you” and ultimately requires continuous improvements guided by customer feedback trends.

For me, success is as simple as:

Listening authentically, acting on feedback, and constantly improving in customer-guided ways.

In the spirit of feedback:

  • How are you experiencing the content I provide?
  • How might I serve you better?

Your insights are my compass for the future.

No alt text provided for this image

Smoke over black background

Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies.

Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli

Leave a Comment


The Starbucks Experience: Leadership Tips eBook
Elevating Care in Healthcare: Lessons from the UCLA Health System eBook
How to Win Every Customer, Every Time, No Excuses! Article