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Complaints – The Tip of the Iceberg

Complaints – The Tip of the Iceberg

The Value of Complaints

“Voice of the Customer” – VOC in short – is a key topic in all kind of customer service, TQM or Lean Six Sigma training and related project work. There are two main categories for VOC data, reactive and proactive.

Firstly, proactive data is collected with methods like focus groups, interviews, observations, surveys or test customers.

Secondly, reactive data is mainly based on customer complaints, feedback, hotline data or warranty claims. The nature of the human being restricts itself almost always to negative comments through reactive data channels. We do not compliment very often, do we?

Proactive versus Reactive Feedback

Asking staff working in customer service departments about the nature of the feedback they receive from customers will result in answers like “No-one calls to tell us how good we are in delivering our service.

Most of the calls – that are not questions – are more or less strong complaints.”

On the one hand, this sounds frustrating, “not fair”. On the other hand, “negative feedback” is very powerful due to the fact that someone takes the time and tells us what goes wrong in our processes, hence shows us opportunities for getting better, for getting more competitive, for growing.


The quality of this kind of information is usually much better than the feedback received via proactive channels like surveys due to the fact that respondents of surveys do usually not have a stake in the issue.

The Value of Complaints

Customer research studies in the German financial industry some years ago have shown, that complaints normally reveal only the “tip of the iceberg”.

Receiving 50 complaint letters means we get only the feedback from those people who take the time and the courage to complain.

Hence, there might be about 1250 customers out there who experience a similar situation but do not complain. May be they go immediately to our competitor if they have a chance. We may never find out. 

Furthermore, the research has shown that there might be as much as 10 times more negative contact points with our company – like “Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line.” These negative incidents are not “big enough” for a complaint but always impactful enough to drive customers’ decision sooner or later.

How Do You Feed Back?


The other day in Singapore, I had a small complaint about an SBS bus driver who did not really respect me cycling my way on the road. After getting home I took some time to recap what happened and wrote a very detailed letter to SBS to explain the situation.

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Welcome complaints! As long as you get complaints someone is interested in your service and wants to help you improving.

Behind each complaint you can expect as much as 25 times the situation that has led to the complaint and as much as 250 negative “Moments of Truth” with your company. Use this valuable and powerful information for taking actions.

And, give positive feedback, too!

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Uwe H Kaufmann

Dr Uwe H Kaufmann is the founder of Centre for Organisational Effectiveness (COE Pte Ltd), a business advisory firm operating out of Singapore. As consultant and coach with many years of experience, his passion lies in supporting organisations to improve their effectiveness.
Uwe is a German national and Permanent Resident of Singapore. He has four children and nine grandchildren … and counting.

  • UK
    10:37 AM, March 2012

    I totally agree, Martin. If the same complaints keep coming back, our measures for fixing the problem and eradicating the root cause may not work. This is important to know anyway. Uwe

  • Martin Gunawan
    10:25 AM, March 2012

    As the complaints we receive are only the tip of the iceberg, it means we need to put more effort to reveal the iceberg more and more.
    Does it mean that more complaints coming to us is much better?
    It’s true, that through more complaints we can see and analyse which processes need to be be improved, which products still can not fulfill customer requirement and expectation.
    But, we must pay attention to the ‘repeat complaints’. If this repeat complaint keeps coming, that we do not any thing valuable for customer in improving our service and products.

  • John Yeo
    12:23 PM, March 2012

    Concise article. Truly, while the emotions of the feedback may mask the intent of the complaint, it is useful to constructively unpack the actions and reactions of these valuable data. That said, it is also great that the article asserts the value of being proactive to design for a more meaningful customer experience by identifying features of the experience of users for enhancement or to change a system process that can always be enhanced!

  • Lee Tiong Peng
    7:16 PM, March 2012

    Respond to the reactive data! Customer voice is heard. Plan for the proactive data! Listen to the customer

  • Renaux
    5:15 PM, March 2012

    Great article. But we should not underestimate proactive ways of gathering VOC data, especially Go to Gemba.

    Best regards,

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