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Five ways companies mishandle online complaints

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Customers are taking complaints to social media as never before, and nervous organizations are struggling to respond. Most are doing it badly. People have been griping online for a long time, of course, but amplification tools now spread the message with breathtaking speed. With the help of hashtags, Facebook pages and petition sites such as Change.org, one person's bad experience can explode into a global news story in less than a day—particularly if others have similar complaints. Seven out of 10 large companies have experienced a social media-based reputation hit during the past two years, and b-to-b brands are no exception. The Facebook Pages of package delivery companies, computer makers and office supply companies are brimming with customer rage, according to executive search consulting company Spencer Stuart. And a recent Altimeter Group survey found that 66% of social media risk managers see online reputation damage as a serious risk. And that's just the big brands. Countless small businesses are buffeted by comments on Yelp, TripAdvisor and hundreds of other peer-review sites every day. What should you do when customers attack online? You can't ignore them, but caving in carries other risks. Here are five common mistakes companies make in handling online critics.
  1. Responding selectively. Once you start engaging openly with customers on Twitter or Facebook, you can't go back, so think first. Most companies still don't have the staff or processes in place to efficiently handle social media complaints. About 45% of questions posed on Facebook go unanswered, according to Socialbakers. Many of those are critical comments that companies can't or don't want to deal with. SocialOps found that 70% of the companies it audited had deleted Facebook comments, a practice that can create more problems than it solves. If you build a branded presence on social networks, you should post a written comment policy, then enforce it consistently. Fans and critics deserve equal attention. Most gripes can be effectively dealt with by simply showing receptivity, and critics often become promoters. One survey of 700 problem incidents in the airline, hotel and restaurant industries found that one-quarter of customers' best memories actually began as problems. People complain because they care.
  2. Not responding at all. Creating a Facebook Page or Twitter account is an invitation to converse. If all you do is post press releases and happy talk, you'll be viewed as a spammer. No one “likes” that. If you're not ready for two-way dialogue, then don't put your brand on Facebook. It isn't a federal requirement yet.
  3. Responding erratically. You should have a target window for response times with limits at both ends. If you answer complaints too quickly, others will come to expect the same service. Are you prepared to give it to them? A good rule of thumb is a four-hour minimum and a 24-hour maximum response window. If you can move faster, great; but be aware that you may be setting a precedent, so add staff accordingly.
  4. Cutting and running. Our instinctive reaction when confronted with a complaint is to dispatch it quickly and get the person out of our face. That typically means either apologizing or promising to “take your comments into consideration”" Neither is a good response. People complain because they feel an injustice has been done. Most are looking for a receptive ear and a promise to address the problem. If you lead with an apology, it looks like you're not listening. That makes people really mad. By the same token, promising to think about it looks like a brushoff. If you're really going to take a critic seriously, set a timeframe for a response—such as, “We'll post a follow-up here within two weeks”—then stick to it. By the way, “no” is a perfectly acceptable answer if you have a reason.
  5. Appeasing. Coupons, freebies and giveaways are never a good strategy unless they're accompanied by genuine regret. Once you set the precedent of buying off angry customers, you'll find yourself with a lot more angry customers. Everything gets shared these days. Make-goods should be given on a case-by-case basis when it's clear that the situation merits it. If you're going to institutionalize appeasement, then apply the policy fairly and consistently. L.L. Bean, Lands' End and Coach all promise no-questions-asked refunds or replacements. JetBlue distributes a flight voucher to any customer inconvenienced by a problem within its control. If you manage appeasement right, it's actually a competitive advantage.
The customer activism trend is only going to accelerate because people get better results on Twitter than they ever got from the Better Business Bureau. Active social media users usually prefer social channels to traditional customer support lines. Gartner Inc. has estimated that companies that fail to accommodate social support may see churn rates increase up to 15%. Every company has a few unhappy customers. If you set up shop in social networks, you're going to hear from them. Think hard about how you'll respond. Paul Gillin (gillin.com) is an Internet marketing consultant and the author of several books about social media. His latest book, co-authored with Greg Gianforte, is “Attack of the Customers: Why Critics Assault Brands Online and How to Avoid Becoming a Victim” (CreateSpace, 2012). Gillin can be reached at paul@gillin.com.
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