Why Embracing Complaints Can Help Your Business

Not every customer will be a satisfied one. But by embracing complaints and learning from them, your company might build its brand in the long run.
May 17, 2017

Tales of poor customer service are a lot like fishing stories: Everyone has one, and the scope often balloons with each retelling.

For example, I recently ordered a new mattress that had to be delivered. The delivery date arrived, but my mattress didn't. After calling the company and waiting on hold for 45 minutes, I was told to expect the mattress the next day. One day later, it was still MIA. I repeated this exercise to no avail. It wasn't until I aired my frustrations on Twitter that I received a response—and a promptly delivered bed.

Plenty of customers never experience this sort of satisfying conclusion. That shortcoming became abundantly clear when Edison Research and I surveyed 2,000 American consumers in 2015 for my book Hug Your Haters. Each of those consumers reported they had complained about a company in the past year via phone, email, social media, review sites or message boards, but roughly a third of our respondents said their complaints went unanswered.

Despite this fact, many companies feel customer service is their strength. This might sound conflicting, but it's also understandable. Many companies ignore their haters, dismissing complaints as outliers. But I suggest you stop tuning out criticism—and start embracing the invaluable feedback.

Face Your FEARS

As part of our research for Hug Your Haters, we asked respondents how likely they would be to recommend a business they complained about to a friend or colleague based on a 10-point scale. Companies that answer complaints enjoyed a boost to this advocacy, resulting in a 20 percent advocacy gain on social media, a 16 percent rise on review sites, and a 25 percent increase on message boards and forums. The inverse is also true—not answering complaints leads to a decline in advocacy.

It might be impossible to fix a customer's experience after the fact, but we can acknowledge his or her feelings and guide what happens next.

—Jay Baer, founder, Convince & Convert

It's not easy to address complaints on various channels; it can be downright scary. But any strong customer-service strategy involves addressing your FEARS. Here's what that stands for:

F: Find all mentions

You can't respond to customer complaints if you don't see them. Try using a combination of Google Alerts and social media listening software to find public online references to your company. Drill deeper to find easily overlooked mentions—my research found only 3 percent of tweets directed at companies included the company's Twitter handle.

E: Empathy counts

It might be impossible to fix a customer's experience after the fact, but we can acknowledge his or her feelings and guide what happens next. A company I feature as a case study in my book had a good handle on this. When a customer posted a message to their Facebook page calling the product "absolutely disgusting," the company's chief marketing officer apologized for the poor experience, shared a brief glimpse of the story behind the company and offered to help the customer get a refund if he encountered any trouble from the retailer. Their patience and empathy—even when attacked by an angry customer—could help anyone feel good about its brand, history and values.

A: Answer publicly

Customer service has become a spectator sport. Our research found that roughly 40 percent of complaints take place in public through social media, review sites or forums. When you interact with customers online, you're effectively addressing your past, present and future customers. When you reply to haters, consider doing it it in a public setting—you want spectators to notice you listening and responding in a caring manner.

R: Reply only twice

It's easy to get caught up in an increasingly negative tit-for-tat with customers online, but it's generally not a winning strategy. Instead, reply to a customer only twice in a public forum. You want to satisfy the unhappy customer, but you're also trying to go on record with your audience. It's perfectly acceptable (and often necessary) to engage in more than two interactions with a customer, but you'll want to shift to a more private setting after those first two exchanges.

S: Switch channels

Changing channels is helpful for several reasons. First, the truncated nature of online forums makes it difficult to address a complex complaint in just two interactions. Switching channels also enables you to obtain necessary, but sometimes sensitive, customer information you shouldn't request in a public setting.

Customers feel better when businesses respond to their complaints—and they feel worse when their pleas go unanswered. By embracing the FEARS strategy, you can upgrade your company's standing with unhappy customers while helping to enhance its overall brand. You'll also spare your company the burden of becoming the subject of someone's whopper of a customer service tale.

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