South Africans are often encouraged to complain about poor service rather meekly accept it – but how seriously are our complaints taken once we make them? How many companies actually have formal processes for handling complaints?

Experience suggests they are few; and yet, the way a complaint is handled can make all the difference to whether an organisation keeps or loses a customer, writes Jean Moncrieff, CEO of Emerge Africa.

A few companies are getting it right. After a recent bad experience at a well-known fast food outlet, I decided to test their complaints handling by contacting their call centre and logging my complaint. A few days later – after first confusing my complaint with one about another of their restaurants across the road — the regional manager made several attempts to contact me.

When he eventually got through he apologised for the poor service, explained the challenges they had faced at the branch and the measures they had taken to rectify the situation, and encouraged me to visit again to evaluate their progress.

This is clearly an organisation that realises the importance of handling customer complaints properly, and has an effective process to do so.

Not so one of our major airlines. A complaint logged via their website four months ago has led to nothing but a couple of emails confirming that the complaint has been received. As a result, this airline has just lost a customer who travels nationally or internationally several times a month – and the travel account for his company. My friends and colleagues will also hear all about it.

This kind of incompetence, from an organisation which transports tens of thousands of people every week, is baffling. Dealing with customer complaints is not rocket science – but it does require leadership, commitment and some basic systems.

A good complaints handling process should ensure that individual customers are dealt with efficiently, methodically, and on time. In a large organisation this is a task that can’t be handled properly without good IT systems.

A dynamic case management solution like Global360’s Case Manager enables an organisation to get a complete, real time view of all its customers and manage them effectively – a crucial resource when it comes to increasing customer satisfaction and growing the business. It should also take care automatically of generating and storing all the necessary documentation, especially important in regulated industries like financial services.

Apart from improved customer service and retention, putting good complaints handling processes in place has many business benefits. Companies can look forward to radically improved complaint processing efficiency, because all information is readily available in one central place.

This, in turn, means lower complaint handling costs and higher productivity. Good systems should also provide good information and reports, including a complete audit trail and a single electronic case folder that can be accessed by anyone in the organisation, anywhere – over the Internet if necessary.

Complaints happen, but that doesn’t mean we can afford to treat them as a routine consequence of being in business. Instead, every complaint should be treated as an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and improve customer service in future. The companies who get that right will leave the laggards in the dust.