The old Dutch saying ‘Trust comes on foot but leaves on horseback’ has a distinct resonance this week following widespread media reports of a lack of transparency in the energy switching companies.  

Big Deal, itself an energy switching organisation, accuses others of not offering the best deals.  Regardless of whether there is any substance to the claim, many consumers will be left with a cold feeling, wondering who they actually can trust.

Consumers are growing ever more reliant on intermediary organisations for clarification and resolution from the primary providers of utility telecoms and financial products;  the very essentials required by all of us to function in our increasingly complex world.

Switching organisations, regulatory bodies, Citizens’ advisory services and Ombudsmen appear to be playing a far greater role in bridging the growing gap between consumers and companies. The Financial Ombudsman employs 3,526 employees and handled over 2 million initial complaints from consumers; almost 8,000 each working day in 2013/14. Whilst the lesser known energy ombudsman handled fewer complaints, it claims that only 5% of those who could have used its services, actually did so, due in part to a lack of information. It expects significant increases next year.

What does all this mean? Are we a nation of complainants, spurred on by opportunistic claims companies, or does the behaviour of some of our largest organisations leave much to be desired?  Undoubtedly we have many more ways to complain, with the loud voice of social media guaranteed to get a speedier response.  Agony aunts in the press will advise consumers to aim for the top; many large organisations have specially designated Chief Executive complaints departments with teams of employees dedicated to this function.

A separate but related issue is the preference afforded those who are digitally enabled, or choose to leapfrog preliminary stages and access board members with concerns.  Encouragingly, complaints management has moved from an operational headache to a source of strategic insight in many organisations, but too many are hampered by the legacy of disparate silos, which prevent the truth about customers’ experience being reported.  There is a danger in overreliance of  machine generated statistics as they become self fulfilling prophesies meeting set expectations.  

In just about every piece of research CCA has conducted over the last year, there are consistent findings from consumers about their desire to be dealt with promptly by an expert, and not passed around departments.  It seems self evident that enlightened organisations can seize the opportunity to become known for recognising and respecting their customers, by ensuring that they have experienced and empathetic staff at the frontline, empowered to do the right thing for customers.

The future of complaints is the first 2015 research topic for CCA Industry Council Leadership Forum comprised of 30 of the largest UK brands. Their strategies and approaches will be benchmarked and we will test the consensus with a rigorous future scenario exercise. 

When it comes to building and developing customer relationships, most companies for years have been playing “not to lose” rather than playing to win. That’s the overarching finding from Accenture’s 2013 Global Consumer Pulse Research, which included more than 13,100 consumers in 33 countries. The summary of the report (click here) advocates practising the 5R’s; recognise the customer, read the context, respond immediately, respect the customer’s rights, and finally ‘right the wrong’. 

Repairing customer relationships is as important as acquiring new customers. And in many cases, customers are open to giving companies a second chance. For instance, more than eight in 10 (82%) defecting customers in Accenture’s survey said they would have remained a customer had the company taken appropriate corrective action. What’s one, seemingly simple, thing companies can do to prevent switching? Resolve the customer’s issue during the first contact (reported by 68% of consumers who said the company could have prevented them from switching). 

At the end of the day the message seems clear, keeping promises consistently will build trust, which in turn will increase the chances of consumers staying with you and being an advocate. Effective, intuitive and mobile technologies are essential as consumers expect seamless online services, married with empathetic experts on hand to resolve issues as and when they arise.

In the words of the great English poet John Milton ’When complaints are freely heard, deeply considered and speedily reformed, then it is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained that wise men look for’.

Complaint management strategies and rebuilding consumer trust are main topics at CCA 20th Annual Convention – view further details here.