Why Brands Should Hug their Haters

Smart companies embrace negative feedback as a source of actionable insights.
Customer Experience

Thanks to the advent of mobile devices and social media, it only takes a few taps to lodge a complaint or negative review that could greatly impact a business. Unsurprisingly, many business owners are dismayed by the rise of digital complaints and attempt to hide those comments.

Rather than hide from negative reviews, companies should learn from them, insists Jay Baer, a customer experience consultant and author. We caught up with Baer to discuss his latest book, Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers and how companies can turn customer service into an insights engine.

1to1 Media: What do business owners tend to get wrong about responding to complaints?

Jay Baer: Certainly not responding is the biggest problem since a third of all complaints remain unanswered. The other mistake is companies generally ignore online complaints and respond to offline complaints like phone calls. The other challenge, especially for SMBs, is they tend to take negative complaints personally.

Answering every complaint in every channel is difficult so can businesses be strategic in responding to customers?

You want to respond to everyone, but you don't have to respond in the order in which the comments were received. You want to respond to negative comments before positive comments and you want to respond to acute complaints before minor ones. Respond to 1-star reviews before 3-star reviews.

Some of it is also operational. SMBs, for example, usually don't receive enough feedback to make responding to complaints a full-time job. And so various people respond to customers on a case by case basis or one person distributes the complaints within the organization without following up on the result. This is why companies need customer service case managers or even an Excel spreadsheet to track the complaints, the person handling it, and the status of the complaint.

What should be a company's goal when handling complaints? Is it to have as few complaints as possible?

I would look at it from two goals. Goal one is if a customer has a problem, you solve it with the minimal effort required of the customer, not yourself. Should you try to get fewer complaints? No. You should try to get more complaints. If you accept the premise that complaints are free market research, the more complaints you receive the better.

The problem is many unsatisfied customers won't complain, they'll just stop doing business with you. Smart businesses understand that they can learn a lot from complaints. For example, Le Pain Quotidien's director of customer experience told me that she wanted to triple the complaints the company gets. That's because she understands that the way to become a better company is by people telling you what you can do better.

So she makes sure that the company's restaurants have clear signage on how to provide feedback and the associates are trained to also ask customers to leave feedback. Very few SMBs put effort into routinely asking for feedback-they just assume that if customers are unhappy they'll let you know. But in reality those customers won't say anything, they'll just disappear.

How do you see customer service evolving as younger generations become the average consumer?

Right now, about two-thirds of complaints are private and one-third are public, but those ratios are going to flip. Soon we're going to see many more customer interactions online and in public because that's how younger people are accustomed to communicating. It's simply faster and easier to post a complaint online than it is to make a phone call. The phone won't go away entirely but businesses will have to be present in lots of channels, because at the end of the day, companies should be telling customers, "We want your feedback however you are comfortable expressing it."