Monday, February 15th, 2016 | 9 min read
Social media has completely upended the way companies manage customer service.
With the click of a button, customers can broadcast their thoughts about brands or products to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people.
This means that people can share their love of a brand with friends and family, and brands can build thriving online communities of loyal fans and showcase a more authentic and human side of themselves.
On the flip side, it also means that brands have to learn how to handle negative feedback on social media. Sooner or later it’s going to happen; your brand will receive a scathing review from an angry customer ready to voice their frustrations online.
Or you might already get a number of these each day.
And let’s be honest; angry reviews probably make you a little angry, too. Maybe you think the person is being unfair, or dramatic, or unreasonable. Maybe you already have too much on your plate, and this doesn’t help.
When you read a negative review about your business, you not only feel angry—you also experience a very real physical reaction.
According to the article Physiology of Anger, by Harry Mills, PhD, here’s how your body reacts to feelings of anger:
“As you become angry, your body‘s muscles tense up. Inside your brain, neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamines are released causing you to experience a burst of energy lasting up to several minutes. This burst of energy is behind the common angry desire to take immediate protective action. At the same time your heart rate accelerates, your blood pressure rises, and your rate of breathing increases. You‘re now ready to fight.”
Accelerated heart rate. Increased blood pressure. Rapid breathing.
These are not the ideal conditions for a speedy, empathetic response to customer complaints. But you have to find a way to keep your cool in the face of an angry customer, or find the people in your business who can do so.
Engaging in a sequence of acrimonious accusations with customers in a public, online forum never works. The business is never the perceived victor, even if they were truly in the right.
Yet back-and-forth “flame wars” are not rare. They happen a lot, and they happen because the person answering customer complaints is unable to put empathy for the customer ahead of their physiological desire to fight.
And empathy is essential to handling negative customer feedback on social in an effective way.
“Just have a human interaction with that person, even if it is online,” says Matt Gentile, Global Director of Social Media at Century 21. He continues:
“Do it in such a way that lets them know that you are listening, you‘ve heard their complaint, you‘re taking actions to investigate their complaint, and then follow up on whatever the results of that investigation was, one way or the other. I think you‘ll find that that greatly reduces the intensity of the interaction.”
Inserting empathy into your interactions with onstage haters doesn‘t mean that you give them all wet, sloppy kisses. It doesn‘t mean you bend over backwards.
It doesn‘t mean the customer is always right. It does mean the customer is always heard, and you should acknowledge, instantly and often, that the person is having a problem that your business likely caused somehow.
A short “I‘m sorry” goes a long, long way.
My friend Chris Rund is a graphic designer, cat owner, and decidedly vocal customer on social media. A year ago, he left a message on the Facebook page of a popular brand of cat food in the United States.
“Dear <cat food company> Cats throw up. Pretty regularly. (I figured you guys would realize this, being cat experts and all.)
With this in mind, why do you insist on putting dyes in your product that cause ruined carpets, furniture, etc. when kitty spews her half-digested yuck all over? Seriously, my cat doesn‘t give a Sh*t what your product looks like in a bowl, and neither do I. What would be helpful and appreciated (by legions of cat owners, I‘m guessing) is if you‘d take the worthless dyes out of your product and save us all a lot of frustration and ruined fabrics.”
To their credit, the brand responded. They did so publicly, and they did it relatively fast, within 24 hours. What they didn‘t do was deploy empathy.
They didn‘t say they were sorry for Chris‘ ruined fabrics or about his cat‘s tendency toward reversals of fortune at mealtimes. They just used the standard, corporate line that deflects blame in a robotic way—the opposite of helpful, and a far cry from satisfying.
In other words, they hugged the hater, but they didn‘t mean it.
“Hi Chris. All of our products are made with nutritious, quality ingredients that meet the standards and specifications of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If you have further questions, our consumer affairs team will be able to help you. You can reach them at 1-877-xxxx-xxx or by visiting our website and clicking the ‘Contact Us’ link at the bottom of the page.”
This is not empathy; this is copy and paste, as if dropping the acronym for the American Feed Control Officials is a universal salve.
If your customer service personnel, especially online, have any responses in their quiver of standard answers that read like this, find them and start over. Because in some cases, scripted, tone-deaf responses are as bad as no response at all.
Sarah Maloy, formerly of Shutterstock, has a secret for avoiding this trap, an extension of the Golden Rule.
“Think about how you would want to be spoken to in the same situation,” she says. “It‘s all about being understanding. Allow yourself to have a voice and allow your brand to have a personality. And don‘t get locked down by pre-written approved language.”
Wink Frozen Desserts embodies this philosophy with social media customer service that’s so good, it blows customers’ minds and wins their hearts.
Wink sells a vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free frozen dessert. An entire pint of Wink is just one hundred calories, which serves as a clue that it isn’t ice cream in the traditional sense.
Because it’s a polarizing dessert, the company gets a number of negative comments (alongside all the praise from fans).
“When someone has something to say, they should be allowed to say it. It’s tough whenever someone has something really negative to say about what we are doing. But regardless, our protocol is to try to publicly, visually respond to that in a nice and understanding way,” says Wink’s CMO, Jordan Pierson.
Here’s Pierson responded to a recent negative Facebook post:
“The creator of Wink is a 25 year old named Gabe who has Celiac disease and dairy intolerance. We do recommend letting your pint sit out for a few minutes before you dig in. If the store you purchased Wink in gives you trouble with the refund please let us know! While we hope that everyone will love and enjoy Wink as much as we do, we realize that not everyone will. If we can help please send us an email to info®winkfrozendesserts.com Thanks for giving Wink a try!”
Notice that he mentioned the inventor, Gabe, and his personal struggle with food allergies—that’s intentional. It humanizes the company, and informs the consumer, in one sentence. Very smart.
Brands must understand that their social media strategy is an extension of their customer service department. And, if they expect their customers to engage with them on social, they need to do the same, in a genuine way, even when that means addressing negative comments.
As I mentioned before, a dry answer to a customer’s impassioned post on social can be worse for your brand than not replying at all. It tells the customer that you don’t really care about them as an individual.
Is that the message you want to send?