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Bolkan Studies Ways Companies Can Keep Customers Satisfied

Published: November 16, 2009

It’s not you, it’s me.
Things are tough at the office.
I’ve got a headache.

People offer a variety of explanations for why something did or did not happen in their personal lives. Excuses bump into justifications as they brush past apologies on their way to denial. What interests Communication Studies’ San Bolkan is that organizations can do all the same things.

Bolkan, who joined CSULB this fall after two years at Pennsylvania’s Bloomsburg University, is interested in how personal relationships can be applied to different sorts of organizational phenomena. He is especially interested in how to keep customers satisfied when they have complaints.

“What can a corporation being complained to say to the complaining consumers to make them feel better?” asked Bolkan. “In my research, I’m trying to discover the best methods of communicating with customers once they’re upset. How is it possible to make them feel satisfied with the response and not feel patronized?”

Considering the current economy, consumer complaints are an issue corporations can expect to deal with more and more.

“Consumers deserve the service they pay for,” said Bolkan. “It’s important for companies to retain their consumers. What we know from the literature is that retaining customers and their loyalty is one of the biggest differences between success and failure in organizations.”

When individuals are faced with complaints, either on the corporate level or in their personal dealings, Bolkan suggests they accept responsibility. “Don’t excuse your actions,” he said. “One thing people dislike very much is an excuse. Instead, one of the best things to do once a person complains is to accept responsibility. In addition, pay close attention to interpersonal treatment. Be considerate to the other person and communicate that you sympathize with what they are going through. You’ve got to make sure they don’t think you’re glossing over the problem but that you understand their position. From that point, work on fixing the problem that led to the complaint in the first place.”

While most people do complain at some point in their lives, Bolkan’s research suggests they’d rather not.

“They’d rather do something else like patronize another business or even badmouth the company to friends,” he said. “I look at what can be done to communicate in the circumstances of a complaint and what that interaction does to help the customer feel better. Everyone has had this experience. It would be nice to think everyone has had a positive experience. But the goal of my research is to help organizations find their role in making that experience positive.”

Say a customer visits a fast-food restaurant only to be served a frozen, uncooked meal. Bolkan believes the proper corporate response ought to begin with two words: “We’re sorry.”

Responsibility is the key. “Moreover, it is important for the corporation to treat the customers with respect and make them at least even with their outcome,” he said. “That means the consumer spent X amount of dollars for the frozen meal so they deserve to have that meal replaced. Some places work to delight the customer. They violate expectations positively. They give the customer something extra like a coupon or a free meal. But the first thing to do is to take responsibility, apologize, offer some kind of distributive justice, and do so politely.”

Corporations need to consider if there is a basis for the complaint. “What most people want is that it is never an issue to begin with. Unfortunately, in all sorts of interactions, the human kind included, things are not done perfectly,” he said. “Either the product can be flawed or services do not match expectations. Either way, corporations can fail consumers. In cases like these, it is important to discover the basis for the complaint and to address it.”

San Bolkan
Photo by Victoria Sanchez
San Bolkan

Bolkan believes it is important for a corporation’s front-line employees who actually deal with complaints to understand that courtesy is an official policy. “Most people take their complaints to the first person they see,” he said. “It is important for corporations to make sure that the person handed the complaint acts as if he or she has as much invested in the company as the manager or owner. It is important to have some sort of organizational culture where the customer comes first. Building customer loyalty is of the utmost importance.”

Bolkan’s advice is simple. Empathize. Let people, whether they are relational or business partners, know that you care about them and that you value your relationship with them.

“Figure out your goal for the interaction. If it is to maintain or repair a relationship, ask yourself if deciding who is at fault even matters,” he said. “Based on your goal, determine what behaviors will help you to reach your desired end. If a staff member wanted to keep a relationship smooth with a significant other, they may consider apologizing for something even when he or she would rather not. It is important for a person to try to see things through the eyes of their relational partner and realize that the way you see things is just one of the many perspectives available.”

Bolkan received his bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies from the University of San Diego and his master’s in Communication Studies from San Diego State. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in 2007.

In the end, making a difference is what complaint closure is all about. “One of my most recent findings is that it is important for people to communicate that the complaint made a difference. Their complaint must be seen as having made an impact on the situation,” he said. “Make sure you’re courteous. And, of course, fix the problem.”