In the service business, landscape professionals are bound to encounter a dissatisfied customer at one time or another. Whether it’s a letter sent that details their disappointment or an upset voicemail or a client complaint posted on a company’s Facebook page, customers find ways to share their discontent when they are distressed.

While this may seem like a big negative, in fact, business owners who receive customer complaints shouldn’t view them as such. Turning negative reviews into positives with timely, appropriate responses and attention can turn client frowns upside down and build a business’ reputation.

Why customers don’t complain

According to the National Customer Rage Study, customer rage may cost American businesses more than $58 billion in lost future sales of goods and services. In 1976, only 32 percent of survey respondents reported having a problem with a product or service over the previous 12-month period. That jumped to 45 percent in 2011. And among those unhappy customers, 60 percent are extremely or very upset.

Many times when customers are upset, they don’t even bother sharing their anxiety; they just move on to a competitor. Unfortunately, research says up to 80 percent of customers who leave were actually “satisfied” with the original company. So, “obviously customer satisfaction is not enough,” explains Ben Ridler, Entrepreneurs’ Organization in New Zealand. “Businesses nowadays need to positively delight customers if they want to earn their loyalty.”

What’s more, “if dissatisfied customers say nothing, you’ll get a false sense of security,” says Michele McGovern on Customer Experience Insight. “You’ll think everything is fine and they’ll walk without giving you a chance to make what’s wrong right.”

Why don’t customers share how they truly feel with their service providers? There are three reasons, according to customer complaint guru Guy Winch:

1. Customers believe complaining is a hassle.

2. Customers think despite the complaint they won’t get what they want.

3. Customers think the company doesn’t care anyway.

Similarly, in “Recovering and Learning from Service Failure,” an article researched and written by Stephen Brown, a W.P. Carey School of Business professor of marketing and executive director of the Center for Services Leadership, and colleague Stephen Tax of the University of Victoria, B.C., Canada, their findings showed only 5 to 10 percent of unhappy customers complain after a service failure, and most customers are dissatisfied with the way companies resolve their complaints. What’s more, most companies fail to learn from their mistakes, the survey said.

Customers want to be heard

“But here’s the good news: customers aren’t actually asking for much,” Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business reports. “An ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘Thanks for your business’ can make a surprisingly significant difference in assuaging customer rage – and increasing brand loyalty.”

And, even simple recovery strategies can have a dramatic impact on profitability, Brown and Tax say.

Your goal should be to get more complaints. Here’s why: “Managers and executives are making a big mistake if their goal is to tamp down complaining,” says Nancy Stephens, as associate professor of marketing at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business. She urges business owners to do everything possible to encourage unhappy customers to give businesses the chance to make things right, so they can keep their customers.

Managing complaints, especially in public or online forums, is not only deepening a customer relationship, but also managing a business’ reputation. How a landscape business owner deals with customer complaints can make or break that interaction and be an example for others. It can also be a huge differentiation factor.

“The challenge is to handle each situation in a way that leaves the customer thinking you operate a great company,” Ridler says. “If you’re lucky, you can even encourage him or her to serve as a passionate advocate for your brand.”

The goal then is to find ways to get customers to complain, speak up and provide feedback,” Stephens says. To do so, Stephens encourages business owners to empower customers – “Let them know that they will always be heard, listened to and taken seriously.”

Stephens offers a few simple ways to start bringing in client comments:

Ask for complaints. At the end of conversations ask, “Is there anything you aren’t satisfied with?”

  • Direct clients to complaint avenues. Some customers don’t like to blurt out their immediate issues.
  • Reminding them where they can provide comments and thoughts, whether it’s via email, text, website or phone, can be helpful to encourage communication.

While business owners implement means for bringing in customer comments and complaints, they should also ensure service standards are in place to address them in a timely fashion.

This way, as Brown and Tax explain, “frontline employees can be empowered to come up with solutions; sometimes it even happens without a complaint having to be lodged.”

Nicole Wisniewski is a 16-year green industry veteran and award-winning journalism and marketing professional. She is a senior project manager in The Davey Tree Expert Co.’s marketing/corporate communications department. Reach her at [email protected].