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I am an entrepreneur and communications expert from Salt Lake City, and I am the founder of Snapp Conner PR. I am also a frequent author and speaker on Business Communication. The opinions I express (especially when tongue in cheek) are entirely my own. You can subscribe to my newsletter, the Snappington Post, at http://bit.ly/1iv67Wk

Contact Cheryl Conner

The author is a Forbes contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Entrepreneurs 3,511 views

The 5 Ways Companies Mishandle Online Complaints

"Wow, that is ugly." When customer feedbacks go wrong

The customer activism trend is only going to accelerate because people get better results on Twitter than they ever got from the Better Business Bureau. – Paul Gillin

Amen to that statement! I’m a longtime fan of Paul Gillin. He’s been speaking and writing about social media since 2007, and wryly notes that while every consultant with a marketing background is claiming social media expertise these days, while they’ve been printing up business cards he’s been publishing books to define the arena’s best practice. I just ordered his newest book, Attack of the Customers, today.

I am particularly struck by Paul’s column for B2B Magazine on the ways companies (mis)handle online complaints. The topic is high on my mind as Reputation Management is rapidly gaining momentum as one of the biggest aspects of online PR. I’ll be giving a keynote address on the topic, in fact, next Monday a.m. in Salt Lake.

According to PR great Weber Shandwick, 7 out of 10 large companies have taken reputation hits through social media.

I agree with Paul’s note that many if not most businesses become their own worst enemies when it comes to dealing with the inevitable online complaints. I’ve written about the topic before, but here are some additional perspectives from Paul. When a customer attacks you online, here are the five most typical mistakes companies make:

  1. Responding selectively. Once you put out a Twitter or Facebook presence, you can’t go back on it. Research from Socialbakers says that as of 2012, at least, while companies are getting better at responding to comments on social media sites, 45% of questions people ask go unanswered.  The questions people ignore are very typically the tricky questions a company doesn’t want to answer, so they simply avoid it insteadOne audit Gillin cites (from SocialOps) shows that 70% of companies surveyed admitted to deleting at least some critical Facebook comments. This is a slippery slope that has backfired for many, as I can personally attest. Another survey Gillin mentions shows that in a survey of  700 best customer memories in the airline/hotel and restaurant industries, a quarter of those memories began as problems that the businesses were able to solve with finesse. Wow! So the message is – in for a penny, in for a pound. If you open the gate to social media, be prepared to respond.
  2. Not responding at all. Some businesses quickly put up Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts – and especially Google+, as I noted in my own recent article, as “placeholders” that allow them to claim a social media presence. Then they allow the pages to sit, or they use them only as a vehicle for posting press releases and company news (translation=spam). The whole idea of social media, however, is to invite conversation. If the dialogue is only a one-way street, you have failed. If you’re not ready to invite and respond to genuine dialogue from a social media site, it will be better to wait. After all, Gillin says, “It isn’t a Federal requirement yet.”
  3. Responding erratically. No, Gillin’s not referring to Amy’s Bakery styles of responding (though it’s a principle that also applies. “Drunk dial” style responses or responding in a fit of temper is never advised.) Think about a consistent policy for the time it takes to respond. Perhaps no sooner than 4 hours and no later than 24 hours is a reasonable window. Gillin raises a good point in that even if you can respond immediately, perhaps it’s better not to set a precedent—otherwise in the event you miss an immediate response, customers may construe an idea such as avoidance that isn’t necessarily true. So try to define a standard procedure for responding and strive for consistency in following through.
  4. Cutting and running. Many businesses are so alarmed by the appearance of a negative comment they immediately respond with an insincere apology and an attempt to “buy their way” out of the problem with a promise of discounts, refunds, freebies, etc. This a bad idea. The unhappy customer, by and large, is looking to be genuinely heard. Opening with an instant apology isn’t “listening,” it’s a form of reacting. Perhaps posting a comment of “I’d like to consider this issue fully. May I call you? I can then come back within the next 24 hours to post a response.” (Note – this is an area where SEO experts and customer service experts disagree. SEO leads warn that any response at all will add more search result energy to a negative situation. Customer service folks disagree. You’ll have to make your own decision; however, I tend to agree with Paul on this point.)
  5. Appeasing. It’s tempting to hope and believe you can solve a negative situation by throwing coupons, freebies and discounts at a customer to persuade them to re-think their comment or remove a negative report. Yes, it’s a form of a bribe, and the more it looks like a bribe, the less it will work. Your company should define a consistent policy for refunds and discounts in a situation that’s warranted, and then be consistent in meting it out. For example, Nordstrom is renowned for its no-questions-asked return policy. JetBlue offers a flight voucher to anybody inconvenienced by a problem that was within the company’ s control. If you set a policy well, the process can become a competitive advantage for you. But if it looks like a bribe, the quick and inconsistent offers of freebies will make your company look slimier still.

I love Gillin’s list. And I think he’s dead-on accurate that mechanisms like Twitter are gaining more power than the actual BBB. In fact, many companies prefer social media to traditional support lines for reconciling their problems. Gillin notes that according to Gartner, the companies who don’t accommodate social support will experience an increase of 15% in customer churn.

(Note to marketers–The Gartner data is a hard metric you can use to support your own social media budget next year.)

Finally, a humorous note about angry feedback online. I experienced a couple of volatile comments myself in response to my own most recent column this week. In my typical style, I decided to leave it alone. My collaborator Tom Lowery, however, was quick to jump to my defense in a most unusual way: he tracked the fellow’s IP address, found his little Facebook business, and posted a remark of his own to the guy’s photo of his most recent landscaping gig: “Wow, that is ugly.”

A taste of his own medicine. In a million years, I’d have never done it nor advised it.  In a customer service sense it’s the equivalent of playing with fire. But I have to admit it had me laughing for the rest of the day. Laughter is therapeutic. On that note, what has your company done really right or really wrong with social media lately? I look forward to hearing your comments (especially the ones that will be making me smile.)

Author: Cheryl Conner | Google+

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  • Tom Lowery Tom Lowery 1 year ago

    Hey Cheryl:

    You know me…always up for a good deed! Funny, that guy never “friended” me on Facebook…after all I did for him! The nerve.


    Note to HIM – if you see this, feel free to ask for advice on how to landscape – YOU NEED IT.

    Warm regards,

    Tom Lowery (you know, the one with the blog…)

  • Cheryl Conner Cheryl Conner, Contributor 1 year ago

    Laughing, again. Thanks for your support, Tom – you are a true gentleman :)

  • Tom Lowery Tom Lowery 1 year ago

    Stop spreading rumors, Cheryl. LOL

  • Devin Thorpe Devin Thorpe, Contributor 1 year ago

    Great article, as usual, Cheryl. Thanks for sharing these insights. I think these points have broad application, even for tiny businesses and individuals!

  • Cheryl Conner Cheryl Conner, Contributor 1 year ago

    Thanks, Devin – it’s getting more and more important that businesses pay attention. CityDeal’s acquisition and re-emergence was a big case in point. They answered every question to the best of their ability during their hardest hours and didn’t censor any of the negative comments. It paid off. Meanwhile, the sites that edited comments paid a terrible price for that choice. Hopefully we all learn. Thanks for your note!

  • Interesting article. What do you do if the complaint is completely unfounded? Could the business claim defamation?

  • Cheryl Conner Cheryl Conner, Contributor 1 year ago

    Daniel – if the complaint is completely unfounded and you have the evidence to prove it, it may be worth engaging legal counsel to see your situation warrants a warning of a defamation suit to the individual who perpetuated it. (or you may have additional options if the misinformation is creating material harm to your business)’ In some cases sites may be willing to remove a negative review if you have provided sufficient proof (it’s called “unpublishing”). If it’s simply a grouchy person with a bone to pick – generally leave it lie. People can typically draw their own conclusion from a compliant that is highly dramatized by someone not looking for a result, but is looking for an opportunity to vent. So it would depend on the situation. Thanks for your note!

  • First of all, you and Tom crack me up! Thank you for the “therapy”! :D I gained a lot from this article as I’m somewhat new to building my business on Facebook. Not new to Facebook, but to the concept of a “brand” or “social movement” on Facebook. I had a FB comment about a month ago that said: “Hi Victoria. Who are u and what do u do? U seem to talk about how successful u are but I can’t find anything on u. No disrespect intended at all….”

    The old, scared me would’ve deleted it immediately, and your article validates me that I was wise to step back and really think through a response. Here’s what I wrote in reply:

    “Successful? I mention how far I’ve come. Success looks so many different ways. As for my success I am most grateful for my inner victories. My dad, my hero, had so much. Money, properties, law firm and you know what… Nothing mattered more than family to him.
    To get to know me simply go to my website on the link above or type in Victoria Wynn, I’m on the first 4 pages on google that show up. Pretty transparent lol have an amazing day and let me know if there’s anything I can do to support your goals.”

    I’m sure there’s things in there I could’ve finessed a bit more in that response, so I’ll call it growth. I remember when David Letterman openly discussed his marital situation in the opening of his show. How much more respect I gained for him that day to own the mistake and clarify the situation.

    I also love that you say: Opening with an instant apology isn’t “listening,” it’s a form of reacting.

    So many gems in this article for me to take into account for myself and my business. Very appreciative you took the time to write this one up Cheryl

  • Tom Lowery Tom Lowery 1 year ago

    I’ve got news for you Wynn…you were cracked long before Cheryl and I got to you…:o)

  • Cheryl Conner Cheryl Conner, Contributor 1 year ago

    Thanks very much, Victoria! I’m glad you’re not getting undone by the naysayers anymore. Good progress by you. Thanks very much for your great note.