Don’t Ignore Customer Complaints

I find Paul Graham’s ideas very useful. I disagree with his recent tweet though.

tweets from Paul Graham

Update: See note at bottom of the post – Paul tweeted that his original tweet was wrong.

Base your assessment of the merit of an idea on the actual merit of the idea, not the category you place the person in that is expressing the idea.

His reply tweet addresses the problem with the first one in a very specific case. But you have “bugs” that are part of your management system, “policies,” products or services. Few customers will bother to voice those problems. Rather than ignoring some of what you hear, you should evaluate the merit of the complaint.

If the complaint is not something that should be addressed or explored fine. But that has nothing to do with the category of the person (“complainer” or not); it has to do with the merit of the complaint.

I understand some people are annoying because they make lots of meritless complaints. Ignoring the meritless complaints is fine with me. But just as I think ignoring advice because the person giving the advice doesn’t follow it is a bad practice I think having a policy of basing decisions on something other than the merit of the complaint/suggestion is unwise.

This is especially true since organizations on the whole do a lousy job of listening to customers and understanding customer desires. We need to greatly enhance the practice of customer focus not seek to reduce it. Every organization is unique, however, and if customer focus is exceptionally great, I can understand the idea of the tweet: that we are devoted to customer focus and each new insight, but we have taken it too far and need to discriminate better. I still think discriminating based on the merit of the complaint is a better than doing so based on our categorization of the complainer but in that case (which is very rare in organizations) the advice isn’t nearly as bad as it is for most organizations.

If the complainer is providing opinions only they should be considered as what they are – opinions. You then judge that opinion as you would any opinion, as a small bit of feedback. Often organizations make mistakes by taking opinions of those who provide feedback as representative of all customers and potential customers. This is a mistake. But it is a mistake to do so at all, not just a mistake to do so for the people you classify as complainers. Opinions have merit but should be considered for what they are and that isn’t the same as pointing out what could easily be classified as a bug (whether the bug is in software code or just some other problem a customer was put through).

I see such a huge need to improve customer focus that any excuse to do less worries me a great deal (especially from someone who has earned the respect of so many people). I can believe in some situations (where customer focus is great – and that may well apply in many of the organizations Paul is dealing with) his tweet has merit. As his response indicates, there is danger in taking that as an ok to ignore complaints about “bugs.”

I would argue we need to do more customer focus, not less. And we should learn to treat feedback appropriately. Opinions of customers matter but we need to then access those opinions within the context of how we can deliver a product or service to all our customers (and potential customers). That requires thinking systemically and often requires tradeoffs between various alternatives.

As to what to do to improve customer focus, follow the links provided in this post. And one of the most valuable ideas is to ask customers: what one thing could we do to improve?.

Related: Customer Focus by EveryoneCustomer Focus with a Deming PerspectiveIgnoring Unpleasant Truths is Often EncouragedLearn by Seeking Knowledge, Don’t Only Learn from MistakesCustomers Are Often Irrational

Update from Paul: This (his original tweet) is wrong: Habitually is the wrong word; the test is motive. Sam put it better:

screen shoot of Sam's tweet - link to text

2 thoughts on “Don’t Ignore Customer Complaints

  1. Interesting tale all around, even the update. The entire sentence would have to be rewritten for “motive” to fit properly.

    In any case I understand both sides. There are some folks who complain about everything all the time, and at some point you just have to let those people go because they’re more of a drain on your energy than anything else.

    Then there are those folks who complain because either you promised something or something doesn’t work, and those are two very important things to address. Nothing says that in addressing the issue you’re always going to give the client what they expect, but you also can’t leave things to chance because you never know who they’ll talk to and it’s better to have them admit that you at least talked to them about a problem.

  2. Pingback: Learning from Customers | Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog

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