It amazes me that even in today's social media savvy business environment there are still big companies that fail to engage with their customers, particularly customers that are frustrated and unhappy. In fact, a variety of research shows that ignoring those customers is the worst possible strategy.
United Breaks Guitars, But Not Their Silence
My personal nominee for the "Stony Silence Award" goes to United Airlines, who has never responded to my tweets about destroyed luggage, flight delays, and indifferent personnel. I probably tweeted a few good things about United along the way, and had no response to those, either. (Of course, lack of response to complaints doesn't mean the social media conversation about the brand doesn't keep right on going. The United Breaks Guitars video, produced by an unhappy customer, has garnered over 12 million views to date.)
In his book, The End of Business as Usual, social media thought leader Brian Solis displays a social media word cloud for a major (but unnamed) airline. The dominant references (fail, worst, sucks, hate, wtf, etc.) are emblematic of what happens when unhappy customers dominate a one-sided conversation.
Why don't these companies engage with complainers? Perhaps they think that there's no upside to such conversations – they can't fix most problems (e.g., delayed flights, rude behavior by employees), and don't want to spend the money to fix those they could (like my destroyed suitcase). If you can't fix it, why bother? It will just make the customer even more angry, right? In fact, research shows that theory couldn't be more incorrect.
What the Numbers Show
The latest RightNow Customer Experience Impact Report reveals some powerful statistics:
- 89 percent of consumers began doing business with a competitor following a poor customer experience.
- 50 percent of consumers give a brand only one week to respond to a question before they stop doing business with them.
Despite the risks posed by ignoring complaints, the RightNow survey shows that four out of five consumer complaints about a poor customer experience are ignored.
The Upside of Answering Complaints
The RightNow study shows that answering complaints can change attitudes. 21% of the complaints DID get a response, and more than half the customers had positive reactions to the same company or brand they had been blasting not long before. When customers received a response to their complaint, 46% were pleased. And, even more surprising, 22% actually posted a positive comment about the company or brand.
Companies can be their own worst enemies: an earlier RightNow study found that of those surveyed, 82% had stopped doing business with a company because of poor customer experience. Nearly three out of four of those cited "rude staff" as an issue, and more than half blamed failure to resolve problems in a timely manner.
It seems remarkable that rudeness, real or perceived, remains so prevalent today. That's a serious problem – research shows that people behave very differently, even becoming more dishonest, when they have been treated rudely. Fortunately, there's an antidote to employee rudeness.
One study conducted by behavior researcher Dan Ariely created a simple setup – subjects were recruited in a coffee shop for a simple task, answering a few questions for the modest sum of $5. In each case, the person asking the questions overpaid the subject by a few dollars. Most of the subjects immediately returned the extra money. But, if the experimenter behaved in a rude manner – taking a long and irrelevant cell phone call in the middle of the survey – the poorly-treated subjects were much more likely to pocket the overpayment.
We don't know what exactly was going through the minds of the subjects who kept the money after the interruption. Undoubtedly, they were annoyed by the rude behavior. Did their negative attitude toward the individual make them feel he didn't deserve to be treated honestly? Was keeping the money a form of revenge? Regardless, it's clear that the rude treatment changed their attitude enough to alter their behavior in a substantial way.
Ariely found that the rudely-treated subjects behaved just like those who weren't interrupted if one small change was made to the experiment. If the person interacting with the subject took the call and carried on the same annoying conversation, but, after hanging up, offered a brief apology, the rudeness effect was negated. The apology led to the badly-treated subjects returning the extra money at close to the same rate as those who experienced no interruption.
Keeping Your Current Customers
Since my earliest days in sales, the drive to get new customers has always been paired with the mantra, "It's much more profitable to keep an existing customer than go looking for a new one." This remains wise advice, but is often widely ignored in practice. Companies that fail to respond to complaints in a timely manner risk losing the same customers they spent large sums acquiring in the first place. The data shows that even when a problem is no longer fixable, a simple apology can still turn a negative attitude into a positive one.