Five ways to spot opportunist complainers

In April 2012 I posted a Winnthink called What makes customers behave badly? It highlighted four drivers that result in people (your customers, and sometimes us, perhaps!) being difficult – even abusive – in their quest to get something sorted out.

The posting prompted some excellent responses, including this from Rob Smith of Smith Law Partnership in Braintree, Essex…

“I think there is a fifth driver – opportunism. There are people who will use the complaints system as a mechanism to get reductions or upgrades or whatever they can based on very little or no grounds.”

Rob’s right. Opportunist complainers are relatively rare, though some sectors encounter them more than others. These people know that if they make themselves enough of a nuisance some companies will give them something for nothing, just to make them go away. The bitter truth is it can cost a company more to fight its corner, even when it’s in the right. That stinks, doesn’t it?

Genuine complainants and opportunist complainers are close cousins, and the line between them can be indistinguishable. People don’t fit into nice, neat compartments, but here are five observations from my time as a complaint handler, which may provoke some thought about the complaining customer before you, and how you might want to respond.

1. Genuine complainants are at least as interested in getting an apology as getting hard cash. Yes, quite rightly they want to be reimbursed for their costs and the time they’ve wasted, but being compensated isn’t the same as being on the make. Whenever you encounter a customer who demands sky high ‘compensation’ or a special deal you should hear alarm bells; in my past life they were often repeat offenders, exaggerating their case – and perhaps a customer we’d be better off without.

2. Opportunist complainers are often quick to tell you about their entitlements and make threats. Well done to any customer who knows what their rights are – most of us don’t read the small print as we should. But when I was in financial services I learned to be wary of the person who threatened to take the company to the Ombudsman service or the newspapers even before explaining the issue. It always smelled a little of blackmail.

3. Genuine complainants want reassurances that the same (perceived) issue isn’t going to recur. If your customer expresses that view, it’s a good indicator that they’re genuine. Those who are out for a quick buck tend to be focused on their payoff right from the start, rather than correcting the situation.

4. Opportunist complainers often have ‘form’. If you look over their record, you may well see a pattern of resolved complaints, extraordinary upgrades or waived charges. Sometimes they will ask to be fast tracked to a senior person and bypass the established complaints procedure, because they ‘got sense out of them last time’. Unfortunately for those in the customer service front line, escalated complaints do tend to be settled quicker and more generously; the senior ranks don’t have the time, inclination and/or skills to spend on this type of conversation.

5. Opportunist complainers are clear about the handouts they want early on. Genuine complainants, less used to making complaints, are interested in the resolution first, getting their costs made good second, and pursuing a good will gesture third (or sometimes not at all).

The customer is not always right, but he or she is, nevertheless, still the customer. Even if you suspect someone is trying it on, you may still decide they’re worth handing something to in the interests of reputation, future business, or simply to do the decent thing. But make sure this is your commercially sensible choice, and that you make the reasons for your gesture clear and bounded. If your organisation gets known as a soft touch, you might just attract more of the same.

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