The Rare But Vicious Attacks Of The Online Customer (And What To Do About It)

I thought I had a marketing death-match for you. I had it all plotted out: Mitch Joel versus Hobson & Holtz. Battle of the marketing giants!

But, like so much that starts out grandiose in the mind, the premise quickly whimpered and died. Here's what happened...

Mitch Joel of Twist Image recently wrote about the small number of customers who complain online - 7%, in fact. He cited a Harris Interactive poll which also was in line with an earlier Bazaarvoice study. Most customers just don't seem to complain online. When they do comment on service, most times it is an incredibly positive reaction.

I howled after I read this because Neville Hobson and Shel Holtz of the For Immediate Release podcast had recently detailed the crippling damages that occurred within minutes of a well-deserved Twitter rant against uHaul (tune in around minute 14).

I had them now! Which was it: Do customers complain online or don't they? What's the effect? I thought I had my two spiders in a glass jar and was preparing to shake the bottle for my own amusement.

Reality Sets In

However, after another (more) careful reading, I realized that they were likely more in agreement than disagreement, though they do bring different aspects to the table.

Mitch is correct not many people complain via online social networks. Though the ones that do are quite damaging because the legacy of that complaint theoretically lasts forever.

But Neville and Shel are also correct in that squeaky wheels can be...pretty damn squeaky. Their examples of David Alston's tweet about uHaul was spot on - this one guy (and the many, many subsequent tweets from other outraged uHaul customers) likely costs them thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes.

Online Complainers

So how can online complaints effect your business? Here are some key ideas to keep in mind when forming an online complaints strategy (you do have one of those, right?):

  • More damaging: Due to the medium, online complaints can be more damaging to your business. They last forever and influence potential customers much more than other complaints.
  • The all-important search engine: One of Mitch's commenters discussed a company who had to change their name due to the volume of bad press Google searches returned. Remember that Google ranks blogs right up there with "legitimate" press (tongue firmly in cheek).
  • Gift to your competitors: David Alston's uHaul story actually had a happy ending. For him and Penske, that is. Make sure you monitor your competitors and take advantage of any situations where they ignore or mistreat a customer.
  • Combat SM complaints with SM: By having a social media outlet, you can address problems quicker and avoid hugely damaging posts. Learn from Delta Skelter and avoid these fiascoes in advance. 1) Create a social media outpost - be it a website, blog, whatever. This is your main hub where customers go to ask questions. 2) Monitor social networks for comments. This could include a daily Technorati blog search, setting up Google alerts (for you and your competitors), Twitter searches, and staying alert on Yelp.com. (The jewelery store where I bought my fiance's engagement ring recently emailed to thank me and give me money off my next purchase - through Yelp. That is smart business.)

The Secret To Not Getting Complaints In The First Place

It's not rocket science. Deliver a good product in a timely manner and you'll succeed, right? Well, sorta.

We know that online customers don't complain as much (online) as you would suspect. But when they do complain, it is loud, long, and strong. Isn't there a way to mitigate these complaints in the first place?

I'm a big fan of Seth Godin's "Think Small" idea. If you think small and are connected to the people at the heart of your business (that the customer, not a HIPPO), then you can be too small to fail.

Angry customers who are leaving don't get heard... that news is heard by the poor shlub reading a script at the call center. 90% of the angry customer mail that people forward to me (I have enough for a lifetime, thanks) is angry because the (former) customer is tired of being ignored.

And if you think you don't have the resources to do this, let me assure you - you can't afford not to pay attention to what your customers are saying. (Heck, in the most dire straits, pay your teenager to alert you to negative comments. Not to respond - just to alert you.)

Sorry, No Battle Royale

I may not have been able to hold the Joel vs. Hobson & Holtz battle of the marketing giants, but I hope this post was still helpful to you. One good way to stay up to date on marketing information is to read the best material. I highly recommend all of the marketers I mentioned in this post.

What do you think? Am I full of it, or have you used these tactics successfully in your own business? Share your comments and suggestions with the community.

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(Image courtesy of BarneyF via Flickr)