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The gift

I read a business book years ago called A Complaint is a Gift. The premise is that businesses should look at customer service not as a wearisome task that needs to be dealt with, but as an opportunity to better your organization while potentially creating brand ambassadors. The concept is so stunningly simple that it’s amazing more companies don’t adhere to it. Listen to your customers, admit your error, and graciously fix what’s wrong. This happens so little these days that when it does, customers are blown away and won over, often leaving even more happy with the company than if they’d never had an issue to begin with. “I will stick with this company, because they stuck by me.” What seems like should be a basic human value – treating others well – still clearly needs to be outlined in a business book. It’s a good reminder for all of us, though.

The book was interesting in that it gave statistics to back up why it’s so important to listen to people and resolve their issues. You know, just in case you need proof that you should be a decent human being. For every one person that calls (or emails) to complain, there are seven more who are just as unhappy but who choose to stop doing business with your company. For the silent seven, their resolution of choice is departure, which is not what any company wants, and telling everyone they know about their horrible experience, which every company dreads.

On the heels of reading this book, the president of the organization I was working for proposed a new policy that virtually guaranteed an unhappy customer base. I saw it coming a mile away, and counseled (loudly and persistently) against it. I was overruled, the policy was implemented, and I watched, horrified, the revenue carnage that ensued. After a few weeks of tracking complaints, I took a report in to the president. She leaned back in her chair, crossed her arms, and replied, “If they’re unhappy, they can go somewhere else.” Well, they did. Sales tanked. Cash flow slowed to a crawl. It was like watching a car accident happen in slow motion.

After a year, remembering the book I read about complaints, I conducted another analysis mostly just out of curiosity. I took the complaints that I had tracked (number of calls, emails, and in-person complaints), and multiplied by seven based on the book’s statistic. This gave me a total number of unhappy customers, if the book’s premise held true. I then took the total number of unhappy customers and multiplied it by our average sale amount, and I’ll be darned if it didn’t come out to almost exactly the amount of sales decline over the prior year. I was stunned. I took my statistical proof to the president, and suggested that our customers had indeed done exactly what she challenged them to. They left. She waved me off, the policy stayed, and I eventually departed like so many of those unhappy customers.

Now, I’m sure there were many other variables that contributed to the decline in sales. But still, those numbers were pretty compelling. And it taught me, again, that when someone tells you you’ve done something wrong, you should listen and apologize and learn and change. Because I think this is a good thing for people to do, not just companies, I try to apply it to my own life.

This week, someone told me I did something wrong. It’s one of you, dear readers. The concern was expressed anonymously, which doesn’t lessen the validity of the complaint in the slightest. The fact is, I messed up. I own my mistakes, all of them, because they all teach me something. I won’t get into the details of how I messed up or how I tried to fix it (because who wants to blast their own imperfections out to the internets…especially if one is mortified, as I happen to be), but I do want to acknowledge to myself (and maybe to the reader, if I haven’t lost him or her, and maybe to the seven others who didn’t complain but felt the same way) that I am still growing and learning and figuring things out. I am so grateful that someone had the courage to point out to me what I had done wrong, otherwise I’d have never known. How many of us can easily see our own faults?

I receive gifts every single day. My family, friends, and colleagues make me laugh, which is a huge gift. People show me love and support through their words, their hugs, and sometimes a bottle of beer. My daughter snuggles with me and tells me she loves me. My husband insists that I don’t skip writing group, knowing that this time is so important to me. My photography friends share their beautiful images, and my writing friends share their beautiful words. My extended family shares their lives with me. And I have people in my life who help me be a better person by pointing out ways I can improve. I am rich in an abundance of gifts of all kinds. This is what I must remember when life feels hard, when in addition to the gifts I receive bad news, as I did last week (also not willing to disclose). (At least not yet.)

I am grateful for these gifts. All of them.

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