Bad dreams typically end when you open your eyes. United Airlines’ recent nightmare, however, started with a wake-up call.
A viral video of security officers dragging physician David Dao from an overbooked United Airlines flight sparked widespread outrage that absolutely rocked the company. While United and Dao recently reached a settlement for the incident, the airline’s public relations nightmare is still raging.
It’s obvious that United has deeply ingrained trust issues. Company leaders don’t trust their customers or employees to make good decisions, which is why the airline’s policies are so rigid. The less trust a company has in its customers and employees, the more likely it is to implement strict policies regarding everything from baggage fees to overbooked flights. But the more stringent United becomes, the more likely it is to repeat the Dao disaster.
United’s customer service catastrophe can’t be undone, but it provides a springboard to discuss how other companies can avoid similar situations. In reality, unhappy customers are your most important customers.
The Power of Hate
For every customer who complains, there are 19 others who will never say a word — they’ll simply stop being customers. While only 5 percent of these unhappy folks complain, there is no such thing as an isolated incident. It’s also the reason to show your haters some love instead of turning your back and fueling a potential firestorm.
Answering complaints — whether it’s online or offline — builds customer advocacy. In turn, it boosts the chance that haters will become referral sources. I worked with Edison Research to survey 2,000 consumers about complaints while writing my book “Hug Your Haters.” Our research found that companies that reply to complaints on social media increase customer advocacy by 20 percent.
Of course, you need to care what people are saying before you ever start on the path to incredible (or even adequate) customer service. Each complaint is a chance to improve processes and gather deeper insights into your operations. Your haters are your eyes and ears “on the ground.” So why would you reject suggestions that could help differentiate your organization from competitors?
Considering the increasing importance of customer service — think of it as the new marketing — business leaders need to develop a thick skin and learn to embrace criticism. After all, the only way to improve is by recognizing your shortcomings.
1. Learn to love complaints.
Instead of viewing crabby customers as thorns in your side, see them as future loyal patrons. Unhappy customers are ready to become happy as soon as you stop marginalizing them.
The traditional school of thought is to replace your haters with new customers, but that’s a costly proposition. Numerous studies have yielded different results, but it’s roughly five times more expensive to recruit new customers than it is to retain existing users. More importantly, research by Bain & Company shows a 5 percent increase in customer retention can boost profits by 25 percent or more.
While the number and tenor of complaints might feel overwhelming at first, even major corporations can benefit from listening to upset customers.
For example, Apple CEO Tim Cook received a concerned email in 2015 from a passionate customer about the launch of the Apple Watch. It would have been easy for Cook to dismiss the email as the ranting of a fan with insane expectations, but he instead asked a member of Apple’s executive team to call the customer and discuss his concerns. The Apple enthusiast posted a buzzworthy message about the exchange on the MacRumors online message forum, which set off a chain reaction of adoration for the technology company. One phone call (or email, tweet, or instant message) is all it takes to turn a dismayed customer into an ardent supporter.
2. Put yourself in their shoes.
Empathy is a rare commodity in the business realm — that’s what makes it so powerful. Most companies ignore complaints and dismiss negative feedback. They forget that no response is a response: You’re telling customers that you don’t care about their problems enough to even acknowledge them.
If you’re not empathizing with customers, you’re certainly not winning advocates. Let complainers know that you’ve heard what they’re saying, and offer a simple “I’m sorry” when they need to hear it. Those two words can go a long way. Most upset customers won’t rant forever, and you’ll win people over by listening to their concerns and trying to understand their situation.
Sarah Maloy, former head of content marketing at Shutterstock, let empathy drive the personality of Shutterstock’s brand. Instead of having customer service representatives read from standard scripts, Maloy encouraged them to use honest, empathetic language. Don’t foster a customer service environment of groveling and capitulating, but show customers the kindness and respect they deserve.
3. Stay in the public eye.
Customers who criticize you publicly deserve public responses. Otherwise, their followers and readers will never realize that you cared. By handling the matter in private, you’re basically squandering the ability to showcase your stellar customer service. It’s fine to shift over to a private platform after the first response, but begin the conversation in the same channel where it started.
Your aim should be demonstrating your corporate values, beliefs, and even-handed temperament with rapid and public responses to criticism. Who knows? You might wind up with a swarm of supporters like Erin Pepper did when she worked at Le Pain Quotidien, an international chain of bakeries and cafes. She publicly acknowledged every complaining customer, and then she suggested they become secret shoppers in exchange for gift cards. Those customers who accepted Pepper’s offer gave her incredible insight into what was happening at Le Pain Quotidien locations at a relatively low cost.
The customer service fiasco involving United Airlines benefited at least one sector: the companies peddling antacids to stressed-out airline executives. Even if United fails to learn from this painful scenario, at least we can avoid stepping in a similar mess.
Stop gushing about your customer service because it's probably not as good as you think it is. A study from Bain & Company found that 80 percent of companies believe they already offer "superior" customer service; only 8 percent of their customers agree.
Listen to complaints, empathize with your biggest detractors, and stay in the public eye (provided the criticism originated in a public forum). Ditch the hot air, embrace your haters, and enjoy a groundswell of support from an army of new advocates.