Customer complaints in the new era

abimaster | June 16, 2011
Melissa Mauldin, Senior Marketing Specialist - A. Bright Idea

We’ve all been there. Your food arrives cold, your online order ships and is different than it appeared on your screen (or three weeks after the estimated ship date and far too late), or the expensive piece of equipment you just bought brakes the first time you use it. Whether it’s a service or product based issue, we’ve all been disappointed by a company at one time in our lives. You may have complained to a manager or bravely took on a 2-hour on-hold session with the Customer Service Department. While it’s likely that some of you received a satisfactory result, I’ll bet for most of you even thinking about customer service mishaps initiate a twinge in the heart, just knowing how unbearably annoying the lack of service can be by a company’s attempts at rectifying an issue.

Now, thanks to social media, consumers have a broad stage to complain on and spread these bad experiences through word-of-mouth (or type-to-tweet) messaging. While some companies have taken the initiative to use these channels to effectively respond to customer complaints, others have shied away from the tool are finding that customers are also shying away from their brand.

In a recent article in American Marketing Association’s Marketing Researchers, Dr. Guy Winch, psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem, discussed how today’s social media channels impact consumers’ complaining psychology.

Many consumers believe that companies could care less about their complaints. The article cited that only 5% of consumers voice a complaint to the company when dissatisfied with a product or service, meaning that 95% will not voice a complaint because they believe it requires too much time and effort. However, if you’re like most consumers, you’ll instead complain to your closest 15 friends/associates. Now, social media channels offer consumers the option to complain freely without involving too much time or effort, and by bypassing lengthy toll free calls and the fear of being put on endless hold or even disconnected when you’re transferred for the fourth time. Consumers have access to voice their complaints in a direct way, which also invites more and more people to do so – those who may not have normally responded to an issue before (impacting that 95%).

While social media is still considered “new” and most of us still have a negative perception toward customer service attributes in response to consumer complaints, some companies, like Wachovia (Wells Fargo) or Delta for example, do monitor these channels and use them as social media Customer Service Departments. They manage responses quickly and use the data in attempts to get better – and it’s visible. What’s more, these platforms offer businesses access to direct consumer feedback – what customers like, don’t like, what they are buying, what they aren’t, etc. It’s a free focus group!

In general, consumers have a good relationship with a business until something goes wrong. It’s up to the company to make it right and mend the relationship. Companies need to find out the details of the situation and show the customer that they are doing something about it. Rather than citing the return policy verbatim, businesses should offer a real heartfelt response and a sincere recognition of the pain a customer has gone through. Customers want to know that they’re heard. Even if their situation can’t be completely rectified, the manner in which it’s handled is the key. Social media makes it easy for customers to complain, but it’s the company’s responsibility to resolve the issue and convert the relationship. Responding to consumers via these channels with a message that says, “We hear you,” ‘We understand there is an issue,” or even “Here’s how to contact us” is just the first, but very important step.

In my November blog post I cited some interesting statistics from an article in Marketing News, which noted that people generate nearly 500 billion online impressions on each other in regards to products and services each year, and Nielsen Online estimates the total number of online advertising impressions comes in around just under two trillion. Now are you listening? In general, people tend to believe and associate themselves with the experiences of other people. If you’re not providing the service quality people expect, no matter how big your budget is and how much of an ingenious marketing campaign you develop, that word-of-mouth negativity can infringe on your brand and erode your profits if your not choosing to rectify these situations and promote that you’re doing so  – turning around those perceptions and making them brand advocates.

Today, we all expect instant gratification. Companies that are not responding to complaints made on social media through social media – or with plans to do so soon – may be impacted in the long run. Monitoring these tools will help businesses better understand their customers and be more attuned to their target audience. When companies do a good job of handling customer complaints and responds to them correctly, customer loyalty can increase exponentially – more so than if there was never an issue. The complaint response creates a story that the customer will share with all of their friends and acquaintances – and most important, it’s a story with a happy ending.