Positive or negative complaint experiences impact on the customer’s loyalty to the brand.

There is much to be gained from understanding what drives customer satisfaction when it comes to complaints. In this article Nicole will explain how organisations can cut the cost of complaints by providing customers with substantive, procedural and psychological satisfaction when complaints arise.

Organisations can start by asking three simple questions:-

1.    What substantive remedy or outcome does the customer want?
2.    What can we usefully tell the customer about our process?
3.    What are the customer’s psychological needs?

Think about the complaints that are on appeal or are being escalated for further review within your complaints system. If you analyse them, you will generally find that one or other of the customer’s needs (as above) have not been met by the end of the complaints process. The remedy requested by the customer was provided, but along the way, the complaints process was unclear and cumbersome – their procedural needs were not met. The remedy requested by the customer was provided, but the customer does not feel that they were heard or properly understood – their psychological needs were not met. It is the customer’s lack of satisfaction in one or more of these three areas that generally gives rise to the (often costly) escalation of the complaint.

“Knowing that customers seek satisfaction of a substantive, procedural and psychological nature can help to guide your initiatives to resolve the complaint”

Furthermore, complaints systems should be designed so that satisfaction across these three areas is optimised.

Let’s look at each of the three indicators of satisfaction in turn:-

Substantive satisfaction

Substantive satisfaction is all about the remedy, ie what the customer wants. This may include remedies such as a refund, compensation, product replacement, or a change to systems or procedures. A request for an apology is a common requirement.

Sometimes customers don’t actually know what they want or can’t articulate their needs well enough. These circumstances require careful attention as providing the wrong remedy will not solve the problem.

To provide a high level of substantive satisfaction, the remedy needs to respond to the customers underlying needs, rather than their stated position. For example, whilst a financial sum is requested, the customer’s underlying need may be to avoid the embarrassment and impact on their reputation of their credit card being declined at a local shop. So, it is important for organisations to “look beyond” the requested remedy and ask “what is important to the customer” and “what are the customer’s underlying needs?” Rather than postulating on this internally, ask the customer to explain more about their request for a remedy and what is important to them? Complaints systems can be designed to capture this information.

Procedural satisfaction

This should be the easiest type of satisfaction for organisations to provide, which is why I am constantly surprised and disappointed to see organisations failing in this regard. For guidance on creating a complaints system that provides procedural satisfaction, organisations need only look to the provisions of the Australian Standard on Complaints Handling AS ISO 10,002. The starting point is to provide with customers easy access to your complaints resolution system. Take a moment to look at your organisation’s website. How easy is it to lodge an online complaint? If you type the word “complaint” into your website’s search bar what do you find? Perhaps nothing. At the very least, customers should be quickly and easily able to give “feedback” or make an “enquiry.” If customers can’t quickly access your complaints system, this often triggers their movement towards social media or other (more public) avenues to express their concerns.

Typical failures when it comes to procedural satisfaction include failing to provide general information regarding the complaints procedure, over promising and under delivering on response times and failing to take ownership of the complaint with the end result that the customer is “telling their story” over and over again.

Providing procedural satisfaction is the one area over which organisations have full control and discretion.  Failures in this area are often symptomatic of internal management issues and resource issues that if addressed, can result in savings through reductions in complaint escalation.

Psychological satisfaction

Needless to say, psychological satisfaction is all about how the customer feels when they are on the complaints resolution journey.  Do they feel recognised and heard? Was the organisation prepared to see things from their point of view? Do they feel that they have been treated politely and with respect?

In some cases, a well-worded apology can provide a high level of psychological satisfaction. However, the opposite is also true and a clumsily crafted apology can serve to inflame the situation and escalate the complaint.

Most complaint letters can be analysed from a psychological perspective. What is the customer’s key emotion? Let’s say the customer expresses their disappointment in relation to a delay caused by your organisation. At a surface level, the inconvenience the customer has suffered could be acknowledged and this would be helpful. However, at a deeper level, the customer’s real message may be that they do not feel valued as a customer. Acknowledging the customer’s loyalty as well as the inconvenience suffered may go further to assuring the psychological satisfaction of the customer.


Complaint satisfaction research consistently confirms that complaint satisfaction or dissatisfaction influences the customer’s attitude to and satisfaction with the business relationship. It also impacts on the customer’s purchase and communication behaviour.

What we know is that satisfied complainants are more loyal to the organisation than customers who did not have a complaint at all.

The research also shows that customers value procedural and psychological satisfaction as highly as substantive satisfaction. This should provide a clue to organisations that for whatever reason are unwilling or unable to provide substantive remedies. Providing procedural and psychological satisfaction to complaining customers should be high on the agenda for organisations that seek to cut the cost of conflict.