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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Ten steps to fixing service problems

The Bargain Queen recently made an amazing discovery: the world doesn't end if you complain about a bad haircut. In fact, she got a really good outcome by doing so. This follows hot on the heels of finding that when you eat out, if your meal's raw, overcooked, unacceptably wilted or in any way inedible, you can send it back. Not only does it stop you having to eat it, in places that care about their reputation you might get a free glass of wine as compensation.

Both of these discoveries have saved The Bargain Queen a lot of money. In the case of bad restaurant food, she used to meekly eat what she could, then buy a snack to fill her half-empty belly - and a bad haircut used to cost her much more. First, there was the money she'd paid the hairdresser to butcher her hair. Then she'd buy some new hairclips to try to make it look good, at a cost of around $20. Then she'd buy another heat-styling contraption (about $40) in the hope that would rectify it. By then, it's clear that nothing short of another haircut will turn it around, so The Bargain Queen would pay someone to fix it. She'd usually end up at the salon she stopped going to when they jacked their prices up to $90 for a haircut. That's a total cost of $150 to fix a poor haircut.

Now this might sound like uniquely female idiocy, because boys are rarely as upset about a bad haircut. But The Bargain Queen has seen grown men eat inedible meals and let dodgy tradespeople take advantage of them, so she knows that sometimes the male of the species needs some encouragement to stand up for himself too.

So what can you do if you've got bad service? Here's The Bargain Queen's ten steps to sorting it out.
  1. Get your facts straight. So your meal is awful. What exactly is awful about it? Is it overcooked? Undercooked? Are the ingredients not fresh enough? Was it already cold when it arrived? Before you speak up, make sure you know and can articulate exactly what you're unhappy with. For food, this is relatively easy; most of us know what fresh, well-cooked food looks like. In other areas (say, fire alarm installation) you might need to get a second opinion or learn some of the lingo before you're ready to talk to the service provider.

  2. Pick your moment. Some things are best handled quickly. For example, any complaint about food is more convincing if it's made before you've finished eating the meal. Likewise, if your haircut is going horribly wrong, it's best to stop them before all your hair is green. In other cases, taking the time to learn more about what's been done can provide a better outcome. Any highly skilled professional (e.g. accountants, tradespeople or medical professionals) should be happy to answer your questions about what they're doing and why. If you're not happy with their response, you're entitled to ask them to stop work and get a second opinion.

  3. Talk to the right person. If the service you're unhappy with was provided by an organisation, there's more than one person you could talk to about it. If you find the person with the greatest ability to solve your problem, you're more likely to get a good resolution. In a restaurant, ask for the manager instead of complaining to the waitress; for construction work, you want to speak to the builder or site manager; in a medical situation, a doctor or specialist can offer more options than a nurse; and in a big company, the complaints department are more likely to help you than anyone else.

  4. Be nice. Some people think that to be nice, you can't tell anyone you're unhappy with what they've done. Instead, they complain to everyone else for days/weeks/months afterwards. This isn't nice behaviour, it's passive-aggressive.

    So how do you behave nicely in this situation? Be polite but firm. There's no need to yell, call the other person names or make threats, and none of these actions will get you a good resolution anyway. The Bargain Queen opens these conversations by saying: "Excuse me. I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm really not happy with the service I got here because..." If you can think of something similar that works to you, you're off to a good start.

  5. Stick to the facts. In step one we got our facts straight; now it's time to articulate them. So instead of saying your burger was revolting, tell the manager calmly that it was cold when it arrived, the bread is rock hard, the meat is a little green and there's a cockroach in the lettuce. This step is about establishing exactly what you're unhappy with, not about venting anger. If you sound like you've already passed judgement ("This place is crap! Your food is disgusting!"), you give the impression that you won't be happy even if they fix the problem, so they're less likely to try.

    If you want to express your feelings about the situation, do it after you've gone through the facts. Make sure you criticise the product rather than the people and try to stay calm. For example, you might add that you find roach-ridden burgers unappetising, but don't say they must be dirty people if there's a roach in the lettuce; there are other explanations.

  6. Ask what they can do about it. Once you've told them why you're not happy, ask politely what they can do to fix the situation. Negotiation experts say you should let the other side make the initial offer, but if there's relatively little at stake, this isn't always necessary. For example, in the scenario above, you might not feel like risking another burger, but if your friend's soup looked so nice you'd rather have that instead, ask them politely and you'll probably get it. If you don't know what you'd like, you can always say "I'm not sure what can be done to fix this, but I'd love to hear any suggestions you have", which will usually get them to make an offer.

  7. Don't go away. In some cases, the person you speak to will become defensive or make excuses rather than working to fix the problem. If this happens, stay where you are. Repeat that you're not happy with the service and would like them to fix it. Once you've established that you won't leave until you get an outcome you're happy with, sane people will start negotiating. You might also offer your sympathy if they're having a tough day and you're the kind of person who does that naturally, as this can help establish that you're a nice customer who shouldn't cop bad service. Just make sure you steer the conversation back to what they'll do to help you when the time comes.

  8. Accept their offer graciously. So the other person has offered to fix your problem by giving you something extra, be it another meal, a free fix-up haircut or some rectification work around your house. Tell them you'd really appreciate it and let them get on with it. Your work here is almost done.

  9. Thank them profusely. When they've provided you with what you need, thank them profusely for doing it. Sure, you've gone through a lot of extra hassle to get what you should have been given to begin with; but they've gone through the painful process of fixing their mistake to give it to you. While you were initially the aggrieved party, they've worked much harder than usual to keep you happy, so they deserve a pat on the back.

  10. Give them good word-of-mouth. If they did a brilliant job of fixing your problem, they deserve public praise. The best in any business make occasional errors and the ability to fix them is what separates fantastic service providers from those who are merely good. So if they did something great in the end, sing their praises!

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  • At 8:40 pm, Blogger wordsonwater said…

    Excellent advice, and with a little tweaking the same steps can be adapted to dealing with spousal arguments, talking to your boss about work issues, resolving problems with small children and goodness, the list goes on!

  • At 1:07 am, Blogger Heather and Dan said…

    Very useful to me! I just sent a cheque to our irrigation company, when I should have phoned and told them what a lousy job their guy did. The first time he came, the system would run, but not shut off. So we called him back and got charged another $150 for him to fix what he hadn't finished the first time. Then I discovered that two of the circuits are leaking so badly they don't work and another is adjusted so that it only waters a swath about a foot wide. Oh, and he stomped on my garden both times, mashing a couple of plants.

    And I was just going to never use them. Instead of letting them know they have a problem...


  • At 5:18 am, Blogger Heather and Dan said…

    Well, that worked! They are coming on Wednesday to fix the system, saying "We've been in business too long to have unhappy customers." Aqua Irrigation is back in my good books.

    - Dan

  • At 11:09 am, Blogger The Bargain Queen said…

    That's fantastic Dan! Great outcome!

  • At 5:59 am, Anonymous Phill said…

    Number two is a really good point. I am a waiter, and if you complain soon after you start your meal or when someone comes to check on you, then we strive to make everything right (unless you're just plain rude). If you eat everything, then obviously whatever your problem was probably wasn't big enough to bother with anyway. Or you're just trying to get a free meal, like one guy who came in way back near christmas.

    Great advice

  • At 8:01 am, Blogger The Bargain Queen said…

    Thanks Phill!


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