Complaints Are Gifts That Keep On Giving

Posted On: 3/31/2017

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TAGS: Vending Times, Vending Times editorial, vending industry, coin-op, vending machine, coin machine business, office coffee service, vending machine operator, micro markets, Alicia Lavay, A Complaint is a Gift, Dr. Janelle M. Barlow, Claus Moller, customer service

Alicia Lavay, vending, Vending Times

I had occasion to remember the popular book, A Complaint is a Gift (Dr. Janelle M. Barlow and Claus Moller, Oakland, CA, 2008) when I read a negative review on Facebook. It was posted by a disgruntled subscriber -- or former subscriber -- and in the interest of full disclosure, here's the unedited text:

"This is the worst company in the world ... we asked that they stop sending their magazines not once but several times. they continue to flood our mailbox every month, we trash them ... if someone brings their children to a convention they send one of their magazines to the child really ppl get a life. they may be free but we do not want them, save some money. take our company off your list [sic]."

I looked up our critic's website. Vendable Systems Inc. (Rock Hill, SC) was founded in 1983 and is independently owned and operated. The company says its "goal is to provide a vending service that is committed to high standards and quality service." In addition, the company says its "success over the years has been based on personal service and enabling direct communication between its customers and its network of service personnel."

So it appears that we have a few things in common with our reviewer. VT also is independently owned and operated (since 1962), and we, too, pride ourselves on direct communication with our readers and high-quality customer service. I'm sure that our indignant former reader is keenly aware of two things: first, that the only way never to make a mistake is not to do anything; and second, that the worst problem for any service organization is an unreported problem. It has been reported that one dissatisfied customer tells nine other people. It's helpful to tell the supplier, too.

We are sorry if we upset you. We made a mistake and we thank you for bringing it to our attention. We are always looking for ways to improve our services, and we take reviews very seriously. And, as you point out, we certainly can save some money: at a rough estimate, it costs us $1.64 to print and mail one issue.

A trade magazine must show its advertisers that its subscribers actually are members of the industry it covers. "Qualifying" readers by use of association rosters and business directories, and following up to ask for "direct requests" through telemarketing and direct mail, is common practice among business-to-business magazines. It is part of the semiannual audit process required by the Business of Performing Audits (BPA, formerly Business Publications Audit of Circulation) to verify the accuracy of our circulation records. Like most computerized list-processing methodologies, it's by no means an exact science.

In terms of the number of distinct operating entities in business, our industry today is 60% of the size it was 20 years ago. This does not mean that it is buying and selling less, or even that fewer people are doing those things. It means only that those buyers have tended to consolidate. This has happened before, and it is a challenge for publications and for trade organizations alike. It also is a problem for those who compile and sell lists. It's time to start rethinking the processes for assembling, merging and purging them. I've begun this process, primarily to reduce "waste" while maintaining the quality of our readership. I think the associations should do this with their lists, too.

Actions speak louder than words, and it isn't always easy to turn down the volume. Sometimes we deal with irate customers who don't treat us courteously. There's always a temptation to take things personally and let our emotions cloud our thinking; or just to give up.

In life as in business, blunders are inevitable. Managing them before they become crises is an important skill. If well managed, a mistake you correct can increase your customers' confidence in you. And, of course, it is the right thing to do.

As I've already pointed out, the complaints we don't hear about are the ones that can kill us. Talk to your clients; get out there and interact with them. Ask those who are pleased with your service what it is about your company that keeps them coming back. Ask them if there is anything you could be doing better. This also applies to your "internal customers" -- your employees, and even your suppliers. A simple thank you will go a long way. An apology will go even further.

In several of my recent columns, I've talked about how leaders today effectively are transparent -- whether they like it or not. As a small businessperson, you have no greater leverage than the truth.

Now, dear readers, it's your turn. I'd love to hear from you. In this world of social media, how do you handle a negative review? And a word of advice to the reviewers: you, too, are in the public eye. Very few organizations that want you to buy from them deliberately set out to annoy you. A civil phone call or email might be more effective. Mama always said that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.