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How to deal with complaints on social media

03.03.2013
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how to handle customer complaints onlineI wrote yesterday about some new research looking at how and when people complain.  It was particularly interesting for social media based customer service because it found that people are often more vociferous in their complaints when they themselves were at fault, and that social media emboldened them to vent their spleen.

So how should you respond to such complaints?  With social media able to amplify a poorly handled customer complaint it is crucial that you get this right.  Some new research attempts to provide the answer.

The research, conducted by the University of Amsterdam, particularly wanted to understand whether a pre-emptive response would be more effective than a reactive one.  They conducted a survey of 163 people, asking their opinion on a real life customer service response.  It involved a blog by a car manufacturer detailing a product recall.  Amongst the comments was a negative response from a customer.  The customer stressed how disappointed he was with the recall process. He stated that he had lost all confidence in the brand, and vowed not to buy his next car from the company.

Half of the participants saw a company response to the comment, whilst the other half didn’t.  The response group itself was split into two, with one group seeing a reactive response, with the company commenting only after the customer had requested one from them.  The other group however saw the spokesperson make an unsolicited attempt to solve the problem.  Both of the actual responses were identical, but each used a different opening.  The first response thanked the customer for their query, before delivering their answer.  The second mentioned that the company monitors the web for customer comments and responds accordingly.

So, which did people think was the best approach?

Ok, first things first, responding is always good.  Both response methods were rated better than not responding at all.  With social media you can’t bury your head in the sand and hope things go away.  With a response required though, which approach is best?  It seems context is crucial.

Let me explain.  When people were asking for a response then either approach was found to be effective.  “By responding to NWOM [negative word of mouth] when it is explicitly asked to do so by the customer, a company apparently signals a willingness to engage in conversational communication in a natural way,” the authors write.

But, that all changed if the response was delivered on a consumer based platform.  So if someone had a rant on their personal Twitter account and your monitoring systems picked it up, the research suggests that responding will be regarded as intrusive and inappropriate, with the researchers going as far as to say it dehumanizes the nature of communications.

So even though responding to customer complaints is generally good, companies should use caution when that response takes place outside of your own brand controlled environment.  With estimates that some 70% of consumer complaints appear on consumer controlled environments this is a crucial distinction to make.

The authors also suggest that companies take care to strike an appropriate tone. For example, personalising the interactions can be helpful, by having the spokespeople use their names in online interactions. When companies — in an effort to underscore the seriousness of their commitment to customer service — insist that their representatives use only official titles, they may wind up putting people off.

“As companies’ responses to complaints are now observed by many other consumers than the complainant in the online environment, it is…important for companies to determine [not only] how to respond, but also when to respond,” the authors conclude.

Republished with permission