Dealing with an unhappy customer online

Is it better to deal with an unhappy customer online or should you try to take it offline?

When an unhappy customer blows off steam online, you’ve got a problem. Their comment is increasingly likely to appear somewhere near the top of Google – and that means its going to be read by your prospects and existing customers.

So if you come across someone raging about the service that your company provides in a forum or on a blog, what should you do?

Should you ignore it? Or put together a response? Should you get into a long drawn out discussion with them? Or take it offline and try to deal with it away from the public view?

The answer is you’ve got to respond to it, and you’ve got to do it publicly.  Why? Because once they’ve posted their grievance, it’s out there.  You can’t undo it. You can only respond to it.

We recommend that you use this as an opportunity to win that customer back and (since you have to do it publicly) boost your reputation at the same time.  So what does that mean in practice?  Click here for a real-world example.

First, you’ve got to publicly respond directly to the comment or thread if you can.  Respond from the point of view that your customer is genuinely unhappy and you’re out to do whatever it takes to win them back. A vast majority of people complaining about bad service feel genuinely put out; very few are chancing it.

Invite them to contact you directly so you can put their grievance right – but let any viewers know you’re going to report back to the thread what you’ve agreed (and be sure to do it!)

If the other party takes you up on the offer to talk with you, be prepared that the experience isn’t going to be pleasant or easy.  You’re going to have to work very hard not to be defensive or take things personally.

I’m not overestimating this point, by the way: most online attacks come from people who don’t feel listened to when they had a problem.  Let’s be realistic here: to resolve this problem you’re going to need the exact same skills the lack of which got you into this situation in the first place.  See what I mean?

When a customer goes out of their way to post critical stuff about you online, it’s an act of revenge.  For what?  For not listening.  Which means you’re going to need to start listening.  So don’t react, don’t defend a position; don’t try to explain or justify the events that led to them feeling this way – just listen.

Have in mind what you’re able and willing to do to show that their experience matters – and offer it to them.  Don’t ask them what they want.  Why not? Because most people haven’t thought that through when they complain and they will feel uncomfortable being put on the spot.  They’re likely to ask for too much (in which case you may have to refuse or capitulate) or too little (in which case they’ll feel bad afterwards).

Better that you offer them and let them refuse or accept.  Most people will appreciate you caring enough to listen.  Being offered some kind of recompense will be a bonus.

In the unlikely event you can’t agree something that will resolve the issue, let them know that you respect their decision and value their feedback even if you can’t put the situation right for them.

Either way, let them know that you’ll post back in the thread what you were willing to do to resolve the situation.  You have every right to do that – but make sure you do it in a professional, factual way without offering any opinion on the situation.

All of us will, at some time or another, find ourselves subject to a blog or forum attack from an unhappy customer or even a malicious competitor.  I have. Other people reading such comments keep them in perspective – no company gets it right all the time after all.  They set them in a wider context of their own experience of your company and its reputation.

What really matters is the way you react to this kind of criticism in the online environment. Remember, the person with the power to turn a negative comment from a threat into an opportunity is you.

Comments

  1. Yes, the customer is always right. But there should be a limit to the fumes he or she is releasing on you. Learn the limits!

  2. Sam Deeks says:

    Thanks for the comment.

    In legal terms, there are rules about what people may or may not say which you can explore and if necessary invoke.

    In personal terms, what do ‘limits’ actually mean? Does it mean that after such and such a point you’ll… what? Walk away? Lose your temper and say something you’ll regret? Start a fight?

    You say there ‘should’ be a limit, the reality of the internet means that so long as they’re not breaking the law, there isn’t going to be a limit to their fumes. I guess that’s the reality of what we have to deal with.

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