Many businesses ignore the value of customer complaints, often to their detriment. But if considered as a potential asset instead of a pain in the behind, complaints can become company improvements, which can then be used to create powerful networks that foster valuable sources of new business.

There are real consequences to disappointing customers. While 96 percent of unhappy customers do not complain, 91 percent of them simply leave and never return. A dissatisfied customer tells between nine and 15 others about his negative experience, but around 13 percent tell more than 20. According to Woo, Wow, and Win authors Thomas Stewart and Patricia O’Connell, it takes 12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative one.

To get the most value out of customer complaints, companies should start thinking about how to solicit more customer feedback. According to Pete Blackshaw, author of Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000, a few ways to jumpstart this process are to:

  • Make the company’s call center line as user-friendly as possible
  • Beef up the customer-profiling process
  • Warm up the company’s website interface to make customers feel their opinions matter
  • Place feedback forms in a prominent place on the company’s website
  • Make sure the company’s feedback system accommodates how customers communicate

Many customer complaints contain hints as to how a company can improve its products, processes, procedures, and service. Admittedly, this is not the intent of most customers; they simply want their problem resolved. But with thoughtful, careful analysis, many complaints, particularly when combined with similar grievances from other customers, can yield company improvement “golden nuggets.” Businesses should prominently post these nuggets on their website or blog, so that customers can see that they are serious about:

  • Resolving specific complaints
  • Showing that they value hearing from customers
  • Continuously improving their operations, products, and procedures

Often responsibility for responding to customer complaints is shuffled off to some remote corner of the firm, hopefully to be resolved quickly, cheaply, and never to be heard about again. This is a huge mistake. Customer service representatives should be tasked with accurately and concisely documenting how each individual complaint was obtained and resolved to a customer’s satisfaction. Those resolutions should be funneled to the company’s information managers, who then must analyze them to determine if an improvement nugget can be extracted from the resolution of similar complaints. To do this effectively, managers need to work closely with the call center. If trusted expression is the new company currency, breaking down barriers between customer affairs and information managers will be worth its weight in gold.

Company information managers can sell a customer complaint resolution program to company leadership by:

  • Explaining what disasters have occurred in companies that have had incomplete information and expertise
  • Providing examples where a customer complaint resolution program added substantial value to a company
  • Partnering with corporate counsel who will advocate to leadership that they can best protect corporate interests with the most complete information
  • Proposing an initial experimental program and using the results to prove the major benefits of an expanded program

While one should treat every customer complaint as an early warning of a broader, more public attack on one’s brand, resolving them can turn even the most dissatisfied customers into brand ambassadors. Some customers may even be willing to periodically offer further improvement suggestions. Information managers can request this feedback in a number of different ways, such as distributing surveys that solicit customer opinions on whether products and services have improved as a result of the customer’s complaint and whether the customer would recommend the company’s products and services.

Self-starting, aggressive information managers should also work to create referral networks out of those previously unsatisfied customers. In Networking Like a Pro, Ivan Misner argues that referral networking is a cost-effective way to get in front of new clients and keep a business prospering over the long term. Business-building relationships require depth, trust, and a real understanding of participants’ needs, wants, and expectations. A successful business creates a network that is an inch deep and a mile wide instead of a mile deep and an inch wide. The underlying philosophy and number one rule of a successful referral network is that givers gain.

Great customer service is not just a consequence of good intentions, attentive management, and a supportive structure. As Peter Drucker so wisely said, the purpose of business is to create and keep customers. The fundamental key to this is to provide customer service that delights customers beyond their most far-out expectations. While providing extraordinary or even superior service is unnatural for most organizations, analyzing and resolving customer complaints can give your company a significant competitive advantage, and make your customers happier to boot.