I wrote last year that complaining should be a major reason for your social media work. With such a fantastic opportunity to find out what your customers think of you, you should be doing all you can to encourage their feedback, whether good or bad, and to use that to improve your services.
So it’s interesting to read some new research today suggesting that social media has in fact driven a golden age of complaining. If we have a bad experience now, we’re empowered by social media to go online and grumble about it to our hearts content.
The research comes from the University of British Columbia, but it has a sobering message for consumers by warning that despite social media offering you unbridled facilities to vent your anger, it may not be helping to solve the problem, least of all when the problem was in fact you.
Previous research has made a clear distinction between complaints made when we know we’re at fault and complaints made when we think the supplier is at fault. If it’s the former and companies listen to our complaints then it makes us feel much better about the whole thing.
When the problem is largely down to us however, it tends to make us feel bad about ourselves, and in true fight and flight style we can often lash out angrily. We tend to divert blame where we can and get angry at the supplier in order to make us feel good about ourselves again.
“When it is our fault we push away and get a bit defensive about it even if we do not think about what we are doing,” said Darren Dahl, a marketing professor and co-author of the study. “We are feeling threatened by our own inabilities and we get a little bit of a hate-on, so to speak, for the organization or company. That is where the complaining does not help at all.”
The research involved participants undertaking a task that was designed to go wrong, and then measuring their reaction to the failure. The research showed those who perceived it was their fault were likely to shift the blame to an external source (79% of participants) and blame themselves less (14%) compared with those who perceived it was the appliance’s fault (28.5% of whom shifted the blame to an external source, and 43% of whom blamed themselves, respectively).
The issue has been made even more interesting by the shift in how problems are reported. Whereas traditionally a complaint would require a face to face confrontation, with social media we can hide behind our computers as we grumble. I’m sure we’re all familiar with instances of people being emboldened by their relative anonymity.
As such, the study notes, companies have changed the way customer service is managed and delivered. “In today’s society, consumers are likely to complain given any opportunity, regardless of who is to blame for product failure,” it found.
While multiple companies would concur that the adage “the customer is always right” holds true, the research may persuade brands to at the very least embark on a more nuanced customer relations policy, Mr. Dahl said.
“Consumers are complicated,” he said. “As a company you might have to be a bit more strategic in this area than was first thought.” The team did additional research that showed companies can actually help a consumer if they are at fault for product failure and therefore benefit themselves by changing what they ask consumers who are making complaints. “Acknowledging that there is a way for consumers to screw up is a way to mitigate this threat consumers can feel.”
So given this potential minefield, it’s essential that companies know how to respond well to customer complaints online. That’s the topic for my next blog.