What to do when customers complain

Customer reviews have become so ubiquitous that we no longer notice how dependent we’ve become upon them, but for many businesses and product categories, they’re a make-or-break proposition.

A 2020 survey by BrightLocal found that 87% of consumers read online reviews for local businesses, and nearly half say they won’t engage with a business whose rating is less than four-star. In industries like hospitality, consumer electronics, and local services, a string of negative reviews can be devastating.

Every company has disappointed customers. In fact, the occasional complaint actually enhances the credibility of a review site. “If everything you see is five stars and looks like it’s written by a marketing department, common sense is going to tell you something feels off,” said Jennifer Griffin, vice president of content integrity and insights for consumer-generated content services provider Bazaarvoice, in an interview with CIO.com.

Every complaint deserves your attention, but different types of complaints deserve different responses. How you deal with online customer negativity depends on the situation. Follow these tried-and-true practices for the best outcomes.

Act quickly. Research shows that customers expect a response within hours. While that isn’t always practical, delay increases the likelihood that the customer will take the complaint to other channels. The response doesn’t have to be a resolution. It can simply be acknowledgment that the complaint has been received or an invitation to follow up.

No single tool will notify you when a review turns up anywhere online, but ReviewTrackers and Birdeye will monitor hundreds of sites for a fee. Brand24 and BrandMentions are just two of the many paid social listening services that assess chatter and sentiment on social networks, discussion groups, and review sites. Bazaarvoice and TrustPilot are review-hosting services that serve thousand of smaller sites and let customers sign up for notifications when their brand is mentioned. More broadly, Google Alerts is a pretty good free option that notifies you when its search crawlers come upon your business or product name.

Take the discussion off line. You do not want to engage in a flame war in public with an angry customer. At best, it will make you appear defensive. At worst, you will look like a bully. Move the engagement to email or, even better, the phone as quickly as possible. If the angry customer refuses to engage further with you, you have every right to note in an even-tempered online response that your efforts to resolve the problem were rebuffed.

Learn the details. Like it or not, fake reviews are a real problem. The major review-hosting services are continually refining their algorithms to weed out fraud, but none of them are perfect. Fake reviews may be posted by competitors, mischief-makers, or people trying to get something for nothing (like a free product in exchange for withdrawing a bad review). And even well-meaning customers make mistakes and may confuse your business with another.

When you get a critic’s attention, probe for details about time, place, and the nature of the interaction. You’re entitled to some time to verify with your people or business records that the customer really is a customer. If you can’t, it’s OK to ask the critic for proof.

Take the high road. In their 2008 book A Complaint is a Gift, the authors advise that the first response to a complaint should be, “Thank you.” At first glance, this makes no sense, but they point out that saying thanks shows receptivity and willingness to improve. It turns the aggrieved customer from an adversary into an advisor and instantly takes the edge off the discussion. Remain polite and respectful throughout the interaction, secure in the knowledge that it’s difficult to stay angry at a smiling face.

Assess the damage. Determine how likely it is that the online criticism will impact your business. Are others responding and validating the complaint? Has it been retweeted or otherwise shared in social networks? Again, the sooner you address complaints, the less chance they’ll go viral. And, of course, if enough customers complain about the same thing, that’s valauble feedback for improving your product or service.

Consider the source. Look at the critic’s past activity to see if they have a track record of complaining and you’re just the latest victim. Check the person’s social media profile and the quantity and type of interactions their previous posts have generated. Influential people deserve more of your attention.

Keep compensation modest. In most cases, angry customers simply want to be heard. The only compensation they may want is the knowledge that you take their opinion seriously and will improve. When a make-good is merited, offer a discount or gift certificate instead of a refund. It’s cheaper for you and, more importantly, it gives the customer a reason to return.

If you want to see how this is done well, visit the Facebook pages of any of the major package delivery services. These companies perform daily miracles by delivering millions of parcels thousands of miles overnight, but they don’t get it right every time. Their support representatives are trained in the fine points of responding effectively to complaints. You can learn a lot from them.

And the ROI goes beyond just satisfying one noisy customer. Dell Technologies, which was a pioneer in turning online lemons into lemonade, has estimated that 90% of angry customers can be satisfied with a receptive response and 60% can be transformed into raving fans.

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