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If you are like most people, you don't bother to complain when you are poorly  served by a company. You simply take your business elsewhere.

Technical Assistance Research Programs (TARP), an Arlington, VA-based company  that specializes in customer service research for corporate America, has  determined that only 4% of consumers with a complaint will mention it to the offending business. The other 96% suffer in silence.

In reality, though, businesses suffer even more. That's because TARP has also  found that of those people with a grievance who do not complain, 63% will switch their business to another company without ever telling why. Even worse, a single dissatisfied customer will tell up to 20 people about his or her experience.

TARP studies have found that dissatisfaction with a supplier is by far the most common reason why people switch from one company to another when buying a  given product or service. More than two-thirds of people surveyed, 68%, cited  that as the reason they switched. Next biggest reason was dissatisfaction with a  product, 14%. A surprisingly low 9% said they switched because of price. (The  remaining 9% died, moved away, closed up shop or made new business friends.)

Nobody likes to deal with complaints, but astute business owners realize that  disgruntled customers who bother to sound off are the best friends any business  can have. These are the ones that inform them something is wrong with their  service, and that gives them a chance to correct it. Otherwise they are apt to blissfully carry on giving lousy service without a clue as to why they are leaking customers.

TARP has further found that of customers who do complain and receive a satisfactory response, 70% become a firm's most loyal customers.

What does this mean to you as a consumer? Be on the lookout not for companies  that never make mistakes - you will never find them - but for those that react quickly, decisively and courteously to rectify the problem when things go wrong. Take note of those who listen politely and seek the facts to determine what  caused a problem, and then do everything possible to make amends. Top flight  businesses train their staffs to be patient and polite with complainers, even if  the customers might be losing their temper a bit.

Can you tell who the good firms are even before a mistake gets made? One hint  is if a business makes an effort to solicit customer feedback about their services. At a minimum they will distribute customer response cards, like the little postcards left in hotel rooms inviting guests to comment on various  aspects of their stay. Take advantage of these opportunities to give feedback,  good or bad. It is a way of helping to improve business performance for you and  everyone else.

Customer response cards have their limits, however. Experience shows that the  vast majority of cards that get returned have positive comments on them. Remember, only 4% of people are inclined to voice a complaint. Business owners in the know are devising ever more aggressive - in the best sense of the word -  tactics to probe customer attitudes. Some home repair firms, for example, have instituted policies of calling every customer within days after completion of a  job to ask about employee's performance.

Even this sometimes leads to inaccurate and misleading results. Most people  are instinctively polite and sympathetic. Sometimes they feel sorry for an employee who goofs up and will cover up for that person. Customers are more apt to reveal their true feelings to a third party. So the most astute businesses  often turn to outside customer satisfaction audits by firms that use scientific  questioning techniques, just like the Gallup and Harris pollsters.

Don't confuse these investigators with the annoying telemarketers who perform  phony general market "surveys" intended to break down your sales resistance. Genuine customer satisfaction auditors will limit their questions to the performance of a specific company and specific jobs. By all means cooperate with them. Think of yourself as a consultant helping to shape up the people you do  business with, for the ultimate benefit of you and every other consumer.

And when something goes wrong, by all means take the time to let someone in  authority know about it. In this situation, silence is not golden. Instead keep  in mind another famous saying - "The squeaky wheel gets the oil."




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