A young man in a chambray button-up shirt sits at an open laptop at a table. The man holds a loose fist to his forehead as he looks at the laptop screen with a worried look on his face. On the table next to his laptop is a succulent plant in a small white vase and a black wire holder filled with utensils and folded napkins. The room around the man is a large glass-walled atrium with vines dangling from the ceiling
A good approach when responding to an angry or disappointed customer is to move the conversation offline. This allows for direct and personalized communication. — Getty Images/FG Trade Latin

Just how important are online reviews to a business’s success? Increasingly, they’re key. Nearly half of consumers use social media as a source of information before making purchases, according to the 2020 National Customer Rage Study. An estimated 14% of consumers who experienced a problem with a product or service posted their complaints at least once on social media, according to the study.

Clearly, businesses that hope to foster positive customer relationships need to effectively address online feedback. Yet nearly half of complainants responding to the study said they didn’t receive a response from the company.

Challenges of online complaints

While effectively managing negative online feedback is critical, several factors can make it more difficult than dealing with complaints received through other channels, like phone calls or in-person visits. Face-to-face interactions incorporate body language, expressions, and other verbal and nonverbal cues, while online complaints typically include only text, said Lauren Grewal, Associate Professor of Business Administration at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and co-author of another study, “Complaint De-Escalation Strategies on Social Media.” That can make it more difficult to accurately interpret a message.

The anonymity of social media can make the use of negative language seem more acceptable, and social media communications are immediately open to public scrutiny. That might prompt some customers to try to put themselves in the best light, increasing the likelihood they blame the firm for any failure, Grewal said.

How to respond: quickly, and take it offline

Despite these challenges, businesses can handle many complaints in ways that shift a negative experience to a positive. A first step is to “put your ego aside and recognize your business may have made a mistake,” said Johanna Grange, Co-founder of Oak Street Social, a social media marketing firm.

Respond within about 24 hours and move the conversation offline, Grange said, noting that all social media platforms have a way to exchange direct messages. Moving the exchange offline allows for more personalization and can make it less likely to escalate.

Active listening and empathy can have a bottom-line impact.

Responding with active listening and empathy

When working with an irate customer, active listening and empathy are critical in helping to defuse an intense emotion, like anger, said Anne Roggeveen, Professor of Retailing and Marketing at Babson College, and also a co-author of the de-escalation study. De-escalation is a first step to building trust.

“Active listening” means paying attention to customers’ complaints and responding in language similar to what they used. Of course, this doesn’t mean mimicking the complaint, but using the same types of words.

For instance, say a customer posts a complaint like this: “I’m so angry your airline changed the time of my flight on short notice, forcing me to ask for time off work when I’m new at my job. On top of that, you lost my luggage.”

Assume the airline responds with something like “I understand your flight changed on short notice, complicating your work schedule, and then we lost your luggage.” That sounds more personal and responsive than a comment such as “the airline will review your complaint soon.” Crisis negotiation literature has shown that active listening engenders feelings of rapport, Grewal said.

Empathy means connecting at an emotional level by “showing genuine concern,” Roggeveen said. In the above example, an empathetic response might include a sentence like, “I can see that you had a bad experience with our airline and you have every right to be frustrated.”

Research has shown that negotiators who exhibit genuine concern can more effectively de-escalate negative emotions, as the other individual feels understood and emotionally supported, Grewal said.

Benefits of effectively managing customers’ complaints

Active listening and empathy can have a bottom-line impact. The de-escalation study authors found that increasing active listening by 1% increases the probability of customer gratitude by up to 14%, while boosting empathy by 1% increases the probability of customer gratitude by up to 90%. It’s likely that customers engaging in these interactions will be more willing to continue to do business with the company.

When their concerns were satisfactorily addressed, more than 70% of complainants in the Consumer Rage study indicated they would recommend the company to others

Customers’ complaints can have another upside: “Someone cares enough to say ‘This could be improved,’” Grange said. The customers’ insight might help you enhance your product or service, or more effectively run your business, she added.

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