Supermarkets Placate Customer Grievances

Mar 18, 2002

Several separate complaints about product quality submitted to a major supermarket by Benjamin Bateman of The Guardian elicited only a single response so far. And were he a typical customer, perhaps he would have been satisfied that his complaint had been satisfactorily handled.

However, a couple of years ago, Bateman himself wrote several hundred replies to customer complaints on behalf of a well-known supermarket. Several hundred letters of consumer grief were sorted into piles of “product complaints” and “price queries.” All were answered using a formulaic method starting with an expression of gratitude, followed by compassion and an emphasis on the supermarket’s commitment to quality and safety. Next, the customer would be reassured that their experience was not indicative of a general problem. A promise of action was made and a voucher issued in an amount relative to suffering or inconvenience.

Apart from the supermarket, it was considered vital that no one knew about the complaint outsourcing arrangement. The customers had to believe the supermarket’s in-house staff had dealt with their complaints. For a while Bateman assumed that the supermarket’s customer relations department remedied their deficiencies. That was until he made a visit to the head office. The letters to which they’d replied were placed in a file, and then thrown out a few weeks later. The “relevant department,” he realized, was a euphemism for the trash can.

Moderator Comment: Do retailers actively use customer complaints to respond and improve the way they run their businesses?

Many consumers feel as if they’ve been given the shine-on by a retailer or at the very least been inconvenienced at one time or another. Various practices from filling-out forms for a return, virtual strip searches at the store exit (ala Comp USA) plus problems such as out-of-stocks on sale items, dirty stores, etc. and you have the making of a seriously under-whelmed consumer population. [George
Anderson – Moderator

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