business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

When it comes to customer complaints it’s pretty easy to recognize that things won’t simply get better with time. Rather, it makes sense to deal with the issue as quickly as possible before they grow into something much worse.

As a consumer I recently encountered a company doing the exact opposite and doing it so badly that I share the issue as an object lesson in how not to handle a problem. Consider it a cautionary tale.

My neighborhood association for years has contracted our trash removal for good reason. Buying the service as a group ensures we all get lower rates and the trash hauler gets a good-sized customer with a relatively small geographic footprint. Basically it’s a win-win.

Recently our trash hauler was bought by a larger company and with that the problems started. I found it fairly easy to set up automatic payments on the company’s website, but almost immediately got a bill in the mail, which made me question what was going on.

Using our neighborhood’s list serve, my wife quickly learned that our issue wasn’t alone. Countless people, like me, set up automatic payments and then got a paper bill, exactly what we were all hoping to avoid.

And we were the lucky ones. One member of the list serve reported getting a bill for 10 times the amount owed. Clearly there was a problem.

I called the company to resolve my account and on two occasions was told they were having computer problems and couldn’t work with me at the moment. But on the second call, I decided to try to help.

I explained to the customer service representative about the List Serve chatter and suggested that the company might want to e-mail its customers to explain that a computer issue was causing havoc with the auto-pay system. He told me that was a great idea since he was spending all his time every day responding to calls like mine.

And secondly, I suggested the company should send a second e-mail once the billing problem was fixed to alert everyone that auto-pay was once again working. He, too, thought this was a terrific idea. However, it’s been more than a week and still no e-mails from the company, but yet, the List Serve traffic is still hot, heavy and angry.

Now I have to believe the trash hauling business comes with a lot of unique issues, but also the advantage that competition isn’t rampant. So my trash hauler is probably safe in navigating this screw up because it won’t be a simple issue for me or my neighborhood association to find an alternative.

You probably don’t have that advantage in your business. The retail food industry is loaded with competitors and constantly finding new ones. For instance, if I had similar problems with my local supermarket, I can easily name four competitive companies in the local area, plus mass merchants, drug stores and on-line alternatives.

And that’s where the cautionary tale comes in. Your customers have loads of complaints and not all are nonsense. And they have the ability to move their business elsewhere. 

It would be wonderful to commit to completely eliminating anything that causes complaints, but that’s never going to happen. So you need to ensure that those complaints are handled quickly and politely.

Because if you don’t act, List Serves, on-line group chats, Yelp, Facebook and more will light up quickly and your issue will go viral like lightning.

Silence certainly isn’t golden when it comes to answering complaints. If anything it’s less like gold and more like lead, capable of sinking your company.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at

His book, “THE BIG PICTURE:  Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available here.

And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon here.

For information about hiring Michael to speak at your next meeting or conference, click here.