Warning: No News is Not Always Good News

When your customers aren't complaining about the services you provide, it's easy to assume you have happy customers. But that could be a serious mistake. In this week's column, Naomi Karten describes what happened in two organizations that misinterpreted the absence of customer complaints.

When things are quiet on the customer front-no one complains, bellyaches, or agitates-it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking all is well. But it's a mistake to blithely assume that the absence of bad news means that the news is good.

For example, consider my client Daniel, a VP of IT. Service delivery, Daniel reluctantly admitted, had been decidedly dismal for a long time. "But we've made some changes," he told me, "and in the last few months we've had fewer complaints. We've still got work to do, but things are definitely on the upswing."

If you'd seen his face as he said this, you'd have seen the look of a man who felt he could finally begin to relax. A few more tweaks, he seemed to think, and a state of calm would be restored.

When the Absence of Complaints Means "I Give Up"
Daniel wanted to believe that things had improved, and who could blame him? No one likes to be bombarded with complaints. Sometimes a gradual decrease in complaints does indeed mean that customer satisfaction is inching upwards, but not so in Daniel's case.

When I talked to several of his customers about their service experience, it was clear that happy was hardly the right word to describe them. Distraught was closer to the truth. What customers saw wasn't the small amount that Daniel's division had fixed, but the vast amount that was still broken. Several customers were adamant that they would have taken their business to an outside vendor if company policy permitted. Why had the volume of complaints diminished?

Put yourself in the customers' place. You're deeply dissatisfied with the service you've been getting. So you complain and you vent and you grouse and you gripe. You write and you call and you email. What happens as a result? Not much. Sure, there have been some changes that have helped. But as far as meaningful, sustained improvement, it's as if no one is even listening. You commit to finding a way to take your business elsewhere. In the meantime, you grit your teeth and make do, complaining only in the most egregious situations.

As a manager of one business unit put it, "After a while, there's no point complaining any more. It doesn't do us any good, because nothing changes. So we just tolerate the delays, down time, and glitches and make the best of it." Basically, you just put your energy and resources into succeeding at what you're supposed to being doing instead of ranting and raving about what they're supposed to be doing.

Once Daniel recovered from the shock of learning what his customers told me, he realized he had a lot of work to do. It's a good thing; otherwise, he might have interpreted a further reduction in complaints as signifying deliriously happy customers.

When the Absence of Complaints Signifies Bye-Bye
Obviously, a gradual increase in the number, type, or intensity of customer complaints bears examination, and sooner rather than later. So does a decrease, as Daniel discovered. But is it possible that an absence of reported problems by satisfied customers can also signify bad news? Absolutely, as Felicia, a director, learned to her dismay.

Felicia headed a group that functioned as a profit center and delivered services to the company's internal divisions. For several years, one of the business units had been particularly pleased with her group's service delivery. Nothing had happened to change that, or so it seemed, until one day Jeff, the business unit manager, informed Felicia that he was taking the division's business to an outside provider.

"They were one of our best customers," Felicia told me. "We'd worked with them for years and had a great relationship. This was a huge loss for us." What happened?

Felicia's service team had made the serious mistake of taking this valued customer for granted. Though her staff had at one time maintained regular contact with Jeff's department, they had let their attentiveness lapse as they focused attention on other matters. They hadn't stayed in touch, as had been their habit, and they'd stopped checking in periodically to see if anything needed attention. No need, they mistakenly concluded, since everything was going well, and Jeff would surely let them know if there were any problems. That, as it turned out, was a mistaken assumption.

When Jeff concluded that he needed to lower costs, he contacted outside vendors to evaluate their service and pricing options. No longer being treated as special by Felicia's group, he never bothered to contact them about offering a competitive bid. So Felicia's team never had the opportunity to compete for the business they already had. The first they knew of the division's concerns was when Jeff announced that he was taking his business elsewhere.

Beware the absence of bad news. What it signifies may be other than you think.

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