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How To Manage Customer Service Complaints In The Digital Era

An Analysis For Better Customer Experience Through Social Media Marketing

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Matt Wujciak

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In Malcolm Gladwell’s #1 national bestseller Outliers, he presented a list of the 75 wealthiest people in history. Of the 75, 14 of the people on the list (a whopping 20%) were born in the United States within a single 9-year span. The idea of this study is that individuals creating the collective economy are a product of the environment, society, and time period in which they are born. In this case, he is giving light to the fact that some of the most financially successful years in history came during a period in the U.S. that saw the rapid growth of the industrial manufacturing age and the emergence of Wall Street, as well as all the tools and capabilities that came with it. 

You’re probably wondering how this applies to us today. Technological innovation and digital transformation are the tickets to economic prosperity. While this seems like anything but reality during the COVID-19 pandemic (and along with it, harsh socioeconomic repercussions we’re all experiencing), there is light to be found after a pandemic. The crisis is forcing customer-centric businesses to rapidly expedite digital adaptation and online capabilities to operationalize business continuity – online events, virtual communication, streaming platforms, social media traffic are all undoubtedly surging. What will happen after the crisis ends and brands resume to normal business continuity plans? Will Zoom disappear? Will Twitter disintegrate? Of course not. 

The only practice that will disappear is the normal that we once knew. The only constant is change. And when a crisis comes to an end (and it will), businesses will use the tools they were forced to use to get through the pandemic as an additional benefit after one. 

In 1999, Bill Gates wrote a book titled Business @ the Speed of Thought. Gates' prediction in the novel highlighted AI and automation’s impact on personal information, communication, and everyday life for consumers. 

In the novel, Gates also predicted the rise of social media forums when he stated "Private websites for your friends and family will be common, allowing you to chat and plan for events." Facebook, the world’s wealthiest and most frequently used social media platform, went public roughly 13 years later. Now social media is a core principle of how families and friends, brands and consumers, agents and customers communicate, like never before. Now that you can probably see where this is going, let’s dive a little deeper into how this boils down to effect your business continuity, customers, brand image, and ultimately, economic prosperity. 

Behind the numbers

Customer complaints aren’t just a minor annoyance to a business; they signpost crucial shortfalls in the consumer journey that have potential spiraling effects.

We hear the same pain points over and over – long lines, unhelpful staff, endless customer transfers – so it’s about time businesses not only think about how to fix the immediate problem customers are experiencing, but what message businesses and front-line employees are inadvertently giving other ones. Today’s exponential surge in digital outlets and technology brought about by the pandemic give us that opportunity. 

According to CCW Digital research: consumers view phone, in-person, live chat and email as the most reliable engagement options, all platforms that were key to quality customer service before the pandemic. Make no mistake, those platforms aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. However, SMS, social media outlets like Twitter and Instagram, and public customer advocacy and complaint forums will continue to gain popularity for instantaneous inquiries and feedback in 2025.

Nearly 84% of consumers are open to sharing positive experiences on social networks, according to a 2019 CCW Digital Market Study. That number is growing during the pandemic’s positive correlation on digital traffic, and will continue as such practices become more standard after one.

While bad customer experiences cost companies revenue, great experiences drive spiraling advocacy. In fact, a good customer experience makes a person five times more likely to recommend a company and more likely to purchase from that brand in the future.

However, timeliness of a brand’s response to those experiences is everything. According to Yelp, if you aim to respond within 24 hours, you increase your chances of having a customer upgrade their review to a higher star rating by 33%.

Read More: 4 Things To Consider Before Building A Review System

This introduces two points for you to think about. One, digital response times are very important, especially as more customers and brands are forced to utilize them. 

Two, the study proposes an interesting discussion topic for both brand reputation and customer service in general. If a consumer reviews your product or service poorly but is willing to change their review (say one star, a whole 20 percent on a 5-star scale. Or even two stars, a whopping 40 percent) over something as seemingly trivial as a delayed response time to one of many comments, would you trust that customer's initial review as an accurate depiction of your brand? Should that review weigh the same amount as the others in a database? Probably not. But the point remains, when it comes to gaining actionable consumer intel through a review system, it’s important to distinguish between valid quality reviews and emotional reactions.

More important than the quality of the review (whether it be a compliment or complaint) and the intel that provides your business, in many circumstances, is the marketability displayed to other customers of the review given. 

A Harvard Business Review study

In a recent study highlighted by the Harvard Business Review, researchers looked at 472,995 negative comments posted in the public Facebook communities of 89 U.S. firms in the S&P 500, through roughly a 5 year time span. Drawing on previous studies suggesting that the contagiousness of a complaint depends largely on the customer’s emotions and the relationship between the customer and business, they used digital textual analysis to measure the intensity of emotions in each post. To assess the relationship between a post’s author (or customer) and the rest of the online community (other potential customers), they counted their communications (or interactions); the higher the number, the stronger the tie and the greater the likelihood that the person served as an influencer (again, to other potential customers). They also measured the linguistic similarity between each post and the community’s overall content.

Read More: A Pyschological Approach To Management And Leadership After A Socioeconomic Crisis

Next, the researchers analyzed the businesses’ responses, looking at what, if anything, the companies had offered an unhappy customer; measuring the amount of personal empathy and explanation in each response; and in the case of multiple responses, assessing the degree of variation in the messages. To measure virality, they added up the likes, comments, and shares inspired by each post and compared the total with the average for the community in which it appeared. 

So what was the conclusion?

Of the nearly half a million posts in the study, 15,762, or 3%, went viral. The researchers identified several patterns: Posts containing intense emotions—especially “high-arousal” emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, and disgust—were more likely than others to spread. 

Strong ties between a post’s author and the community drove contagion, as did linguistic similarity—and both those factors amplified the virality effects of intense high-arousal emotions.

Retaining customers

Apologies and requests to switch to a private channel generally lowered virality (demonstrating another advantage of an omnichannel customer service strategy in the digital era), as long as they were communicated right away. Offering to compensate an unhappy customer had the opposite effect—a result that took the researchers by surprise.

Early expressions of empathy are more effective than explanations, which can be perceived as excuses by your customers. But there’s an important exception: posts reflecting an unusual degree of high-arousal emotions. If customers are extremely or unusually upset, an empathetic reply may feed their agitation, whereas a rational, fact-based explanation often helps cool them down, which many of you have probably experienced for yourselves. 

Online review systems and media outlets like Facebook and Yelp terrify brands for that exact reason. As consumers spend more and more time online (consuming media, shopping, clicking on ads, trolling brands, etc.) throughout this new digital era, businesses usually associate review systems with potential negative feedback and crippling PR. But unless you have a reason to hide in the bushes, you shouldn’t look so guilty. In other words, designing and maintaining a review ecosystem can be to your advantage. Think of growing digital platforms as a cultivated garden that requires constant, well, gardening. Through consistent, timely communication in a digital environment, we can alleviate dissatisfied customers and drive spiraling advocacy and customer retention with satisfied ones. 

Read More: Special Report Series: Navigating To The New Normal: 3 Stages For Adapting Your Workforce To The Crisis

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