The arrival of a new generation in the marketplace that has grown up with high-tech has resulted in a culture of reading and posting online reviews. Some 89 percent of today’s consumers read online reviews and responses. When and where an online complaint lands can mean that thousands of people — even hundreds of thousands — can and will read a single person’s complaint.
While a solitary event can leak out onto news shows as a topic of non-stop discussion for days on end, it can ignite an already challenging situation into a firestorm before the company can even take stock of what went wrong.
Businesses have been devastated by online public commentary. The damage caused by talk among a few fellow commuters standing next to a bus stop in no way compares to the damage a single irate consumer can perpetuate today on the internet. In today’s world of video and smartphone cameras, information highways and instantaneous communication, it’s challenging to hide inadequate services or products that don’t deliver what was promised.
You may have heard about the United Airlines kerfuffle when airport security guards pulled a medical doctor passenger off of a flight. He refused to leave his seat, saying he had medical patients to see the next morning in Louisville, Kentucky, where the plane was headed. It was a confusing situation — the flight was over-booked, no one had volunteered to leave, and the doctor’s name was selected to take a later flight scheduled to leave the following morning.
It took United Airlines several attempts before they got their messaging right. Unfortunately, the doctor was forcibly dragged down the aisle by security with blood on his face, and taken off the plane. Four years later, you can still watch the video on the internet. Most people still remember the incident because it was replayed over and over. A bloody face makes for good evening news!
However, when handled well, a company’s ratings can improve. At this point, you would think that every sizable business would know what to do. But they don’t. What should they be doing?
1. Check online reviews regularly.
Customer stories, whether accurate or false, can rapidly get out of control. When this happens, the negative ones tend to be exaggerated. Monitoring online reviews needs to be a job responsibility of someone inside the company.
Respond quickly to all negative online reviews. This allows readers to see that management is doing something about the issue. Remember, customers are pretty forgiving if they know a business is fixing complaints.
2. State your corrective action.
When a customer complains, reply with a specific remedy to the complaint — not just a generic “We’re working hard to make things better.”
Suppose several complaints appear regarding the poor selection of food at your hotel’s free buffet breakfast. It’s time to tell your potential customers that you are explicitly expanding the offerings that will be available.
3. Restore confidence.
Make sure everything you post or respond to online is transparent and honest. Let your customers know that you value their trust in you by admitting mistakes and showing customers that they care.
Well-handled complaints are a mechanism that can help companies build agility (responding quickly to problems that need to be fixed), trust (acknowledging when a mistake has been made), and empathy (showing care for their customers) — all of which create confidence in the customer that will lead to loyalty.
4. Make it easy.
Once customers are at your website, make it easy for them. Make sure all your customer service reps spend time on your company’s website so that they’re conversant with the full range of what bothers and excites your customers. Place an email address and telephone number on every page of your site. Nothing is more annoying than reading branding messages about a business wanting to communicate with customers and then having to spend considerable time tracking down contact information.
Also, make it easy for customers to find where they can provide feedback. Some websites hide their feedback pages, perhaps because they fear a storm of complaints. They call them something other than complaints, such as “customer service management,” “accounts reconciliation,” or even “information hotline.” It should be evident to consumers where to go when they have complaints.
5. Create an internal feedback loop.
When complaints come in from customers, they should be shared with management and any departments able to resolve the issue then and in the future.
If a customer complains that particular clothing sizes aren’t accurately stated, the feedback must be shared as your clothing sizes are updated. Everyone wins with this type of communication. Customers get clothing that fits, so they don’t have to return it for a different size, and complaints go away.
Janelle Barlow, PhD, is an award-winning speaker, trainer, consultant and author who translates research into practical tools to improve customer service and complaint handling. She works with Customer Service Representatives, managers, and companies, to help them recover and retain customer loyalty. She is author of “A Complaint Is a Gift: How to Learn from Critical Feedback and Recover Customer Loyalty“.