News Analysis: Firms face up to customer attack

Consumer group Which? has launched Bite Back, its largest-ever consumer consultation exercise that will identify companies with poor service standards. Joe Lepper asks how firms can control complaint fallout.

To say the UK is a nation of complainers is no understatement when taking into account latest research by Which?. According to the consumer group, which last week launched Bite Back, its biggest consumer consultation initiative yet, as many as 15 million people complained to a company or organisation last year, with poor service and faulty goods topping their list of gripes.

While this ought to be concern enough for firms, there is the added problem that disgruntled consumers might turn to the media. And in terms of reputation management, this can be disastrous, with a word-of-mouth anecdote easily capable of becoming a story read or heard by millions.

Deflecting bad press

London Evening Standard consumer affairs editor Jonathan Prynn says the key to a successful complaint story is the David-versus-Goliath angle.

The utility and financial services industries were the main sectors to face angry-customer stories in the past year, according to Prynn.

'Sometimes there may be just a one-off complaint, but other times they may act as a case study to a wider problem. That is when there's a good story: the consumer against the corporate Goliath,' he says.

According to Which? campaigns and comms director Nick Stace, a reason why financial services and utilities complaint stories are so attractive to the media is that 'they have such huge consequences for those concerned'.

But Stace feels that all sectors need to be concerned by the Which? programme as complaints highlighted will be in the public domain and plans are afoot to name and shame the worst offenders as well as reward excellence.

Naturally, savvy companies already have a solid structure and strategy in place to tackle complaints stories.

Barclays, for example, has a dedicated PRO to handle such stories - PR manager for consumer issues Alan White. He says it is crucial to follow the story from start to finish, liaising with customer service staff and journalists.

'Because I'm dedicated to this type of story, (consumer affairs) writers know me and I can talk them through what we are doing to investigate the complaint,' he says.

Barclays group customer services director Richard French adds that if the bank is at fault it is important that staff are updated. Mobile phone firm Orange, in contrast, doesn't have a dedicated PRO to handle complaints stories, but does try and ensure continuity by charging a PRO with following a story to the finish.

One strategy that Barclays and Orange have in common is to ensure the PR team is in regular contact with call-centre staff to highlight potential stories before they arise.

White says: 'This is vital. If one of my contacts (in the call centre) leaves, I make sure I run through things with their replacement.'

Orange regional PR manager Maureen Dixon adds: 'That is something we have to do: there's constant toing and froing between us and the call centre and they know to contact us if there are lots of calls about one complaint.'

According to crisis communications experts, a key hurdle PROs face in dealing with a complaint story is the legal department. Regester Larkin partner Mike Regester advises: 'The trick is to stand up to the lawyers - their strategy is say nothing, do nothing, while ours is to tell the truth and be open. If it goes wrong, it is often because lawyers have taken control.'

Another concern for PROs is the trend for disgruntled customers - and workers - to set up websites dedicated to complaining about a company.

Two examples are www.untied.com, set up in response to a complaint about United Airlines, and www.mcspotlight.org, dedicated to McDonald's.

Razor PR director Debbie Parriss says: 'There's been a real explosion of these sites and they can do real damage to reputation. It must also be remembered that journalists look at these sites as well.'

An indication as to which firms could be set for a tough time during Which?'s consultation came last month in a separate report, involving interviews with 2,000 customers and 3,000 workers by business consultants TMI and the Institute of Customer Service. This looked specifically at the best and worst firms regarding the handling of complaints, with those coming off badly including BT, NTL, Orange and O2.

Clive Hicks, report author and TMI senior consultant, says that when it comes to avoiding complaint stories, the solution is clear - improve staff training and conditions and a better public image should result.

He adds: 'You have these sweatshops with thousands of call-centre workers in poor conditions. It's difficult to get good service from that.

Our research found that those companies with good conditions had fewer complaints.'

CUSTOMER COMPLAINT STORIES IN THE NEWS

- Southern Electric Dodgy practices by salesmen were highlighted by the BBC's Watchdog in March. In one of the worst examples, a salesman pretended the Government had sent him. Southern Electric's parent company Scottish and Southern Energy gave customers an 'unreserved apology' and said one salesman had been sacked and another suspended.

- Orange Cosmetics firm Avon and mobile giant Orange came under a barrage of criticism in April from customers after unprecedented demand for a phone give-away offer led to stock shortages. A statement was released explaining that demand had exceeded expectations and assuring customers that they would be updated regarding stock availability.

- Royal Mail The organisation came under fire in May when the Daily Mail published the story of Newcastle woman Margaret Clare, who had received no post for two months because her postman couldn't find her house. Royal Mail said her house was on a new estate where postmen struggled to find the correct letterboxes. But it added: 'We have not offered the quality of service that customers expect.'

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