5 Ways to keep up with the avalanche of online customer feedback

customer feedback

By Jay Baer, {grow} Community Member

Mobile technology and the explosion of review sites and forums have made it easier than ever for customers to provide feedback – good and bad. Further, companies’ participation in these platforms creates even more feedback, the way one barking dog spurs on every other dog within earshot to join the ruckus.

8X increase in customer complaints in UK

There are definitely more haters in general, and more active ones than ever before, especially online. From January 2014 to May 2015, there has been an eight-fold increase in customer complaints made on social media in the UK. And between 2008 and 2018, the US Department of Labor Statistics estimates that customer service representatives will experience the third-highest growth rate of any occupation.

When you start to engage with customers online, it causes more people to talk back. “In general, when our customers implement a robust engagement strategy, they‘ll start to see a 30% to 40% increase in the total volume of commentary about their brand in the first few weeks or months,” says Kristin Kavalier of NewBrand. “That‘s a really, really good thing because in general, when people talk online it‘s positive. So we want to encourage more chatter. And of course there are all kinds of related benefits like improvement in search engine results, particularly at the local level. And so online engagement is sort of the gift that keeps on giving. Once you‘ve started interacting, there are all kinds of ripple impacts that we think are highly valuable.”

Most online customer feedback is positive

Kavalier‘s point about most online feedback being positive is important. Nearly every company interviewed for this book, as well as research from Yelp and others says the same. Laurie Meacham is the Manager of Customer Commitment for Jet Blue, and oversees the airline‘s customer service programs. She says that in social media, 60 percent of the customer comments are neutral— questions, mostly.

Thirty percent of the comments are compliments, and just 10 percent are complaints. In an offstage channel like email, the balance is different, with many more complaints than compliments. “We definitely get more compliments in social and more complaints in email,” Meacham observes.

Haters represent a small, but critically important sub-set

Much of what is considered an online complaint might never have been voiced in the pre-Internet era, because the magnitude of the issue wouldn‘t have matched the effort required to mention it. Julie Hopkins from Gartner describes the humdrum, narcissistic nature of many of our onstage “complaints:”

“I would imagine that the number of disappointed moments that are shared has probably gone way up because of the ease of putting your angst, frustration, and subpar feelings out into the social atmosphere,” she said. “You can voice a foam latte art gone bad and say, ‘Gosh I‘m really disappointed because this was supposed to be a beautiful maple leaf and it just didn‘t turn out that way.’ And yet that‘s not something that would have ever, 10 years ago, been considered a complaint. And yet today, in the social space, the brand is going to sit there and someone is going to have to see it and deal with it.”

We’ve become a world of critics

Hopkins says we are training ourselves to be hyper-critical about everything: “We have become a world of critics. We are able to evaluate and share our feelings in a moment’s notice via different forms of media. We can tape it, we can shoot an image of it, we can shoot an image of it and retouch it. We can add a comment, and we can tag the brand in it. We can tag the brand and the actual location we‘re experiencing it. We are now trained and taught to put a critical eye towards everything.”

Social media is a petri dish for first world problems

Customers are now empowered to publicly log their latte problems, and company participation in onstage channels actually creates more chatter, in more places. Consequently, the idea of “call deflection”—used by many large companies to justify the cost of robust social media customer service programs— is a myth.

The notion is that customers will gravitate toward onstage channels over time, increasing the number of comparatively inexpensive interactions with companies online, while reducing the number of more expensive telephone and email exchanges. Gartner reports that social media customer service personnel can deal with four to eight times the number of interactions than telephone advisors in the same time period. In theory, it all makes sense. But, in reality, it‘s less so.

Customers‘ use of onstage channels has skyrocketed, of course, but the growth in the total number of interactions has essentially eliminated the presumed financial advantage in most cases. If you take 10 phone calls that cost you $6 each, it‘s an attractive proposition to shift five of those calls to Twitter interactions, at a cost of $1 each. You‘d save 41 percent!

But what actually happens is that you now need to handle 30 Twitter interactions, and you end up with a channel shift, but no cost savings. This equation is exacerbated by the fact that the reduction in calls and emails doesn‘t always happen either. Customer experience architect Esteban Kolsky explains this dynamic:

“Every time we add a new channel to customer service, we always said, ‘Oh it‘s about call deflection,’ because it‘s the easiest way to prove value to customer service managers. That‘s all they want. They want to get rid of the calls, thinking that the calls are expensive. But every single time we found that contrary to the claim of call deflection, we actually increased the number of calls. This is because people interact first with the company in social, but then are asked to call to actually resolve the issue.”

Five ways to keep up

While there is no singular magic formula that will solve every issue, following are five ways to keep up with the burgeoning amount of feedback.

1) Start with an empowered customer service team

The importance of this observation cannot be overstated. Your providers of online customer service must be able to actually address the problem and have the capacity to solve it whenever possible. Kolsky has it exactly correct.

If people tweet you and you frequently require them to then call you to actually accomplish anything, you are doubling your workload. That scenario still has benefits, though. You are impacting customer advocacy, and the very public nature of your participation matters.

You are also gleaning insights to make your business better, and differentiating your business from competitors who don‘t respond publicly. Still, interacting with many of your customers multiple times across different channels is an expensive recipe for business improvement.

It takes resources to address the increasing tide of customer feedback. Hugging your haters isn‘t free. But some businesses embrace that wave and use it to make their company better, or even use it as a marketing advantage. They want feedback from customers—the more the better—and they‘re willing to invest in collecting and addressing it.

As chronicled by John Dijulius in The Customer Service Revolution, Umpqua Bank in Portland, Oregon works hard to harvest customers‘ opinions, even while they are visiting a branch location.

Every location has a phone in the lobby, with a sign next to it that reads, ‘Let‘s talk.’ Pick it up and you get connected to the office of CEO Ray Davis. You can pick up the phone and tell him what you think the bank is doing right and what you think it can do better, or you can ask him anything you‘d like. Umpqua is not a tiny, one-storefront bank, either. As I write this blog, the company has nearly 400 locations.

2) Do not use canned, copy-and-paste responses

Other businesses make tactical decisions to stretch their customer service resources further by using canned, robotic, or abrupt responses. It‘s faster to copy and paste than it is to craft a thoughtful, customized response. Is that time savings worth it?

In some circumstances it may be, especially if you‘re giving the same information to different customers over and over, like in a service outage, for example. Note, however, that Shutterstock had a service outage and still responded to every customer with a customized, self-effacing reply. Fundamentally, when you choose a rote response system, you are doing so based on a value judgment. You decide it‘s not worth it to answer personally or in-depth, and you don‘t.

3) Answer personally and thoroughly

That‘s certainly the choice made by Pollon Flowers in Melbourne, Australia.?In April 2015 Cheryl Lin Rodsted wrote this email to her local florist:


I’m writing to request a refund on a bouquet of David Austen roses that my husband ordered and bought specially from your Melbourne store yesterday (April 14). The bouquet was wilted and the flowers were spotted and browning—I can bring them back and return them.

It’s also important that you know why this is so disappointing. A year ago I ordered my wedding bouquet from your store and as per email below, Nicholas promised me David Austen roses. My heart sank a little on the morning of our wedding day when I opened my bouquet box and found standard roses instead. Nicholas had promised me an “exquisite” bouquet and I was disappointed but naturally I chose to focus on having a happy day instead and it was such a great day that I was euphoric for weeks after! However later on our honeymoon the niggling picked up and I confided in my husband that the only thing I’d change from our wedding day was my bouquet and became a little obsessed with wanting to call up and ask why I was not provided the promised David Austen roses—naturally it’s become a bit of a joke with us.

So my poor husband was trying to “make things right” by providing me with David Austen roses from your store. Not only did they not arrive on Saturday as initially promised in time for our anniversary, when we finally received them they were such a disappointing and sad-looking bunch that it’s almost heart-breaking. I’d like to finally give you the chance to make this right by providing us with a full refund or perfect bunch of David Austen roses.

I look forward to hearing from you. Cheryl”

The reply from Pollon Flowers was succinct:


Rodsted is certainly more passionate about rose specificity than most people, but she probably deserved better than a one-sentence dismissal. So as a thrice-spurned offstage hater, she took her grievances public and raised the stakes. She posted her email and the florist‘s response to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram creating a torrent of “I‘ll never do business with them again,” comments from nearby friends.

Instead of recognizing the error, Nicholas from Pollon Florists compounded it, telephoning Rodsted, calling her an psychopath, and saying, “I know where you are, and I will come find you.”

Yes, you should answer customer complaints, but for the record, stalking customers and threatening them with bodily harm is not part of the Hug Your Haters success formula.

Eventually, a different Pollon team member took over, and delivered new roses to Rodsted. This attempt to save time by sending a one-line response backfired, requiring substantial effort to repair the relationship with not only the customer, but also the growing crowd of online spectators.

4) Answer everybody

Social media and review sites are public, and that makes it a dangerous game to pick and choose who you answer, while also blurring the line between customer service and public relations. “Companies that only answer influencers are not providing customer service. They are engaging in reputation management,” says Frank Eliason, who has held senior customer experience positions with Comcast and Citi.

Today‘s customers, especially the onstage haters, may easily notice the hopscotch nature of influencer-based answers, creating a potential for backlash.

“You don‘t want to pick and choose because people are smart. Communities are smart,” James Degnan from Microsoft Xbox points out. “Let‘s say you and I both follow Xbox on Twitter, and Xbox has this model of picking and choosing. We both follow Xbox, we follow each other, and let‘s say I send a negative tweet to them, and you send a neutral ‘engage with me’ tweet, and they reply to you and don‘t reply to me. Your community will figure this out and think, ‘Hey, you‘re going to address this guy because he‘s easier to address. You‘re not addressing me, and I can see that you‘re picking and choosing.’ It creates more negative impact than companies realize.”

Justyn Howard is the CEO of Sprout Social, a software tool used to find and interact with customers in social media. He explains the inadequacies of using influence as a filter for onstage interactions: “We run into a lot of organizations that say, ‘Look, just show us the influential people so we can respond to those. Because we don‘t have time to respond to everybody.’ That can‘t be the answer,” he says. “You wouldn‘t only pick up your phone some of the time. If you have to add more people to be able to answer everyone, then do that. You can‘t just accept [complaint volume] as a problem you can‘t fix.”

5) Prioritize interactions

Instead of responding only to influencers, Jenny Sussin from Gartner recommends prioritizing customer interactions by issue type. She says, “I definitely think that there are posts that need to be prioritized. It could be the context of the discussion. It could be a topic that is quickly accelerating in terms of the overall number of mentions. It could be a topic that you‘ve red flagged as critical. So if you‘re Chobani yogurt and somebody is complaining about the smell of your product, that‘s a problem and you want to be alerted to that right away. If somebody says, ‘I think there‘s a bomb on my train’ Metro North might want to reply to that. But if somebody says, ‘My train is running late,’ they might say, ‘Oh well.’ It‘s all about context.”

The Hug Your Haters mantra is to answer every customer, in every channel, every time, and is a simple answer to how to keep up with the ever-increasing amount of feedback. However, it’s not always simple to implement. This strategy must be tempered to one’s resources. We don’t recommend being a part-time participant in any channel, so only participate in the ones in which you can fully commit to. Remember that many companies have started or fully reverted to viewing and practicing social interactions in lieu of marketing and advertising.

hug your haters jay baerContent drawn from Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customersabout which Guy Kawasaki says: “This is a landmark book in the history of customer service.” Written by Jay Baer, Hug Your Haters is the first customer service and customer experience book written for the modern, mobile era and is based on proprietary research and more than 70 exclusive interviews.


Top Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Arup Malakar

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