How you benefit from customer comments you were pretty sure you didn’t want

Due to a misunderstanding, at the last minute before takeoff an airline refused to allow a pair of special-needs passengers to fly. This upset the passengers deeply and stranded them at an unfamiliar airport.

No one should have been surprised that intense criticism of the airline spread rapidly via social media, portraying them as bad-guys even though the incident was (arguably) a one-time mistake by an isolated group of employees.

This wound up being a good thing, because:

The airline discovered this issue, apologized to the would-be passengers and their families, refunded their money, offered them additional free flights, and came up with a new process to keep the problem from recurring. All-in-all, the airline—our hometown favorite here in Seattle, Alaska Airlines—took a regrettable mistake, and did everything possible (considering it was after the fact) to make it right with those affected. In this way Alaska Airlines also earned positive PR by showing they’re the kind of company that owns up to their mistakes and jumps on an opportunity to do the right thing when they can.

> Read more about the “special needs passengers stranded by Alaska Airlines” incident

> Another great PR turnaround story:  FedEx responds after delivery guy caught on video throwing computer equipment over a fence

This post isn’t about Alaska Airlines—it’s about the other guys

I’m pleased to see more and more stories about companies turning customer complaints into positive publicity. But this post is for the other guys, anyone who isn’t sure they have the right attitude, either individually or organizationally, to handle all customer criticism in a positive way.

Poster child for the other guys: the poor fellow in charge of PR for General Motor’s Chevy Volt product.

George Anders, a journalist and blogger for Forbes, took home a Chevy Volt to give it a try. When he asked online for help with a recharging problem he was having (the Volt is a plug-in hybrid) other Volt owners enthusiastically offered assistance. That was great news for George, and even better news for Chevy—vibrant customer communities, when they exist, are one of the best things about the social media era. Such communities can become huge, low-overhead “company assets”.

But Chevy’s official spokesperson apparently didn’t like George’s feedback and responded to George’s request for help in a way which George felt belittled both the Volt charging issue and the blogger himself.

My guess is that George had hit upon a known problem that the PR guy was frustrated by and he was peeved that George hadn’t let him dodge it.

Understandable. But it’s also understandable that George rewarded the PR guy in kind, with multiple posts on Forbes.com that featured both the charging problem and the PR guy’s unprofessional bed-side manner.

Oops. Not good for the brand. And pointless, to boot. The customer community had already taken care of the problem. All the PR guy had to do was lose the ‘tude.

> Read George Anders’ original post about his Chevy Volt PR experience

> Read about the trend toward “Unsourcing”—turning over customer support to other customers—in The Economist

In social media, indignation sells.

The Chevy Volt scenario isn’t unusual. Every day there seems to be a new story making the rounds on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter about companies generating unnecessary—and astonishingly bad—publicity about the way they mishandled a customer complaint.

Typically this happens when the customer service reps, PR people and/or executives who get a complaint thrust upon them take it personally instead of professionally. They may feel

  • frustrated because their time and talent is being wasted;
  • defensive, and afraid the blame will stick; or
  • outraged, because the issues seem to be trivial or the customer’s own fault.

By letting their personal emotional reactions get the better of them these company representatives fail to “get” that any disrespect, frustration, or defensiveness (fear) they respond with can boomerang back on the company via a social media feeding frenzy.

These reactions are understandable—we’ve all been there (well, perhaps not the Dalai Lama, but the rest of us have been there). For most of the people I consult with the hardest part about responding to unwanted criticism  is developing a mindset where unsolicited feedback, and frankly, unhelpful and negative feedback, is welcome.

Solution: Wrap your brain around a constructive mindset

Here are three reasons why getting plenty of comments you don’t want is a best case outcome, not a worst case outcome:

1. People who comment or complain are already engaged with your brand and want to be more engaged. Reward them with your respect. Commenters want a response, and hope for a solution—they’re invested. Your critics are often people who want to like you more than they do, people who want you to improve and succeed, and are willing to give you a chance. In their minds their comments or complaints are a valuable gift of their time and knowledge.

Consider this: The worst thing that could happen to you would be if people stopped giving you the benefit of their opinions.

Imagine what would happen if everyone ignored your brand completely. Only your enemies let you walk around with a piece of toilet paper stuck to your shoe without mentioning it. Your friends, and people who are open to becoming your friends, are the ones who point problems out to you so you have the choice of doing something about it or not. (I’m seldom so peeved as to not provide merchants with feedback about their failings…but it has happened once or twice. Call me spiteful.)

You want to encourage customer feedback, not discourage it. So be a grateful gift recipient if only because receiving customers’ gifts of feedback is a powerful—and inexpensive—way to reward them for their loyalty. Just by listening to customers you are giving them something of value! A person who gives a gift—here, the customer giving feedback—often benefits from the act of giving a gift as much as or even more than the recipient benefits from receiving it. But ingratitude on the part of the recipient robs the giver of the benefit of giving.

2. Listening is often all you need to do to satisfy many commenters. Frequently listening is enough to calm down complainers and, ironically, it can turn them into fans. People are less likely to discover they are mistaken, or that a thing they are upset about is trivial, while they’re angry. When they get their story out and feel heard, they can calm down. And when someone listens to them, and helps them calm down—closure and all—they are often more than calm, they’re grateful.

If find yourself getting stuck on the idea of “listening” to strangers who are annoying you, remember:

  • Listening to someone isn’t the same thing as agreeing with them.
  • Customers don’t have to be factually correct to deserve the respect your listening shows them.
  • Customers will expect you to treat them the way you treat others, even non-customers.

> Learn more about improving business listening skills

3. There will be wheat among the chaff. You can’t have it both ways. When the customers complaints are legitimate, hearing them (and sometimes, as with the Alaska Airlines incident above, discovering them) is essential for your business. There is no cheap, sure-fire way to screen out the good comments from the bad. Turn the filter up too high and you will screen out, and discourage, feedback you want.

Don’t be too quick to judge the value of comments and complaints. Sometimes just about everyone is terrible at articulating important ideas, and the meaning they try to convey is lost. Other times we are terrible listeners and we fail to grasp the importance of what is said. When you are tempted to get irritated by what seems to be an inappropriate comment, cut both yourself and the complainer some slack, instead. Count to 10. Or 100. Or pull in someone who isn’t taking it so personally to take over for you.

Keep the door open to feedback of all forms, if only to reap the benefits of reasons 1 and 2 above, then allow the cream rise to the top. Even if a majority of customer commentary is not particularly helpful to you, genuine customer service and/or policy issues will sometimes emerge which will give you opportunities to enrich your customer relationships and reputation.

Get listening. Or get trained.

For these three reasons your best across-the-board reaction when receiving feedback is to be grateful. You should be flattered by commenters’ interest and the fact that they made the effort to offer you a gift, so to speak. And you can treat their offering like a beauty contest or possibly a lottery ticket—sometimes good ideas come in, and both you and the commenter win! And those who don’t “win” may still give you credit for giving them their time on stage.

If you or someone on your team (including C-level executives) can’t do this, then get these people training or keep them away from customers. On second thought, we’ve arrived in the social business era; there’s nowhere to hide from customers any more. Get listening, or get trained. Or your business will suffer the consequences.

4 Replies to “How you benefit from customer comments you were pretty sure you didn’t want”

  1. Bruce my good man! You have made my day with this post. Well done! You have clearly, concisely and articulately touched upon an essential aspect of branding that many, many businesses miss.

    PR / Customer Service.

    Many do not see that these to go completely hand in hand. However the fact is that a CSR team is on the front line for each and every brand and branding campaign. They will make it and they will break it. They are handling the single most important aspect of any business – CUSTOMERS.

    I shake my head when businesses contract their CSR services to the lowest bidder or to poorly trained, poorly maintained call centers. CSR Teams NEED to be trained well and in the know for the products, services and brand that they represent.

    RE Your comment:
    “Typically this happens when the customer service reps, PR people and/or executives who get a complaint thrust upon them take it personally instead of professionally”.

    This is bang on. This is all too true. My experiences in marketing actually began as a CSR rep for a leading manufacturer in Canada. Garnering the experience and learning how, even from my “humble” position, my words could influence the brand image for good or for evil, was an epiphany. It has influenced my efforts in marketing and branding ever since.

    While it is naturally human to shy away or lash out during negative feedback or uncomfortable situations, negative experiences can actually be welcomed. People are impacted more by how a business deals with a issue, then they are by the issue itself. If a business rectifies an error properly, the error itself is *almost* completely erased and replaced with a positive memory. Once their frustrations subsides, people can and will understand/accept a mistake on the part of a business, it is more important that a business give them a positive experience RIGHT AFTER – thereby putting out the fire while it is still small.

    You have provided concrete examples and I applaud you. Well done!

    1. TMS: thank you for your kind words, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I applaud your passion about working FOR the customer! People who have a highly positive feeling about their customers, including the troublesome ones, will project that positivity and build stronger relationships. They’ll also be able to make better business decisions, faster, when they’re not conflicted and distracted.

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