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Brands fail to deal with social complaints

February 21, 2014

A new survey concludes that, while a growing number of people are going on social media sites to complain about products and service, more than 50 percent of companies and brands are operating without strategies in place to deal with unhappy customers.

According to a survey of 1,036 marketers, social media strategists, c-suite executives and entrepreneurs by Social Media Marketing University (SMMU):

  • More than 58 percent of companies receive complaints via social media "occasionally" while nearly 11 percent receive them "somewhat often" and about five percent "very often."
  • Roughly 26 percent of brands' reputations have been hurt due to negative posts with 15.2 percent reporting having lost customers and 11.4 percent experiencing revenue losses.
  • More than 23 percent not only do not have a strategy in place to deal with negative posts, they have no plans to develop one.
  • Nearly eight percent have strategies in place to deal with negative commentary on social media that are proving to be ineffective.

"So many brands are buying into the 'friending equals spending' mentality," said John Souza, founder of SMMU, in a statement. "They want the benefits of social media but aren't truly aware of the investment of effort that's required to see a return. As a result, this lack of effort rarely produces desired results and can lead to alienation of customers, fans and followers. It can even escalate to a backlash of negativity."

According to SMMU, only 17.6 percent of brands respond to customer complaints on social media within one hour (what most consumers expect), while 52.2 percent respond within 24 hours. More than 21 percent rarely if ever respond to complaints on social media.

Discussion Questions:

Have you seen retailers and brands making half-hearted social media efforts without following through on complaints? What are the keys to addressing these types of complaints most effectively?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Do you think retailers and brands are generally equipped to handle social media interaction, or should they stay clear?


The poll question is tricky. A retailer needs to have a presence on Social Media as much as vendors need to show up at the NRF's Big Show. It sort of proves you exist. And it's an opportunity to engage with customers.

But engagement means just that. Resolving squeaky wheels (who would find a virtual place to vent anyway) is really important.

Truth be told, I'm not sure retailers know how to deal with customer complaints in general. So the first thing to decide is "What's our strategy around customer complaints?" Then figure out how to manage them in each of the ways you might hear about them.

Seems to me to be a critical brand question.

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Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research

The assumption seems to be that complaints need to be responded to very quickly - and I'm not sure that's true. Complaints come in all shapes and sizes and someone's not going to like something about your product all the time. A company could spend a fortune trying to answer all the trivial complaints. Hire a minimum wage worker to give standard replies and to be on the lookout for serious complaints that really need attention.

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Dr. Stephen Needel, Managing Partner, Advanced Simulations

Most brands are using social media as a marketing channel, with few examples of including an actual customer service component. As lessons are learned and maturity models develop, more brands will purposely include service and real-time response as part of a purposeful and managed discipline in their social media programs.

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Matt Schmitt, President, Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer, Reflect

This echoes research I worked on with Christina Heggie and Jim Singer at A.T. Kearney several years ago, so I guess I'm in agreement with the meta-conclusions — many big branders don't understand how social media works.

There is really only one "key" to success — follow the rules of any media platform you use to engage your customers. In this case that means an emphasis on speed, transparency, honesty, directness and the establishment of some king of feedback mechanism.

Or, put another way, think of social media like a conversation. If someone came up to you and said they wanted to talk to you, would your first response be to refer them to somebody else? If they had a complaint about a bad experience would you start the conversation with a cliche or platitude in hopes they'll forget what they are mad about?

With social media, as in life, common sense trumps abstract strategy. Try using some.

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Ryan Mathews, Founder, ceo, Black Monk Consulting

The old adage that bad news travels faster than good news still holds in social media. Retailers and brands need to respond to all issues as well as in a more timely manner.

Social media is 24 x 7, not 9 am to 5 pm, so companies need to adapt to this. And transparency needs to be much greater than it historically has been which puts more power in the hands of the people responding to the complaint.

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Bill Davis, Director, MB&G Consulting

The number one reason customers give for not complaining is that it won't make any difference. Social media represents a terrific dialog opportunity; today's digital equivalent to the backyard fence where neighbors shared good (and bad) news about products and services. We need to listen and have a strategy for a timely response. Even those who do not get the response they seek are more likely to repurchase from the offending company if they receive a considered response.

Companies need to be proactive here. Using social media primarily one way, namely, to sell, misses the opportunity to create the oft desired "customer intimacy.' Complaining virally is only going to increase. Strategic responses need to do the same.

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Richard J. George, Ph.D., Professor of Food Marketing, Haub School of Business, Saint Joseph's University

Social media activities and strategies are not for the faint of heart. However, communication with consumers has changed. It is two way. More organizations need to face that reality. It means the company messages do not control brand image and that consumers have a major role in creating that image. As a result, companies needs to engage with consumers by monitoring what is said on social media, by engaging in conversation, by using proactive strategies to engage consumers, to listen to them, and to incorporate that information into company strategies. All this is in addition to whatever promotion the company posts on social media.

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Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D., President, Global Collaborations, Inc.

When consumers started using social media as a channel to voice complaints, expecting a response from the company, many of my colleagues and I compared it to walking into a crowded train station, complaining about a product or company, and expecting the company to hear you and to do something about it. On the face of it, the proposition seemed a bit absurd.

Here's the deal: absurd or not, perception is reality if consumers expect something to be true, then someone will sign up to make it so. Those that do this well will succeed, and those that don't will be left behind.

Am I saying it's easy? No. There are an ever-growing number of social media networks to manage and monitor; it's a significant commitment to stay on top of it and provide timely, meaningful support, and a commitment to social media entails so much more than just providing support.

Remember though that change is inevitable in our business. What we now consider "standards" in customer service are all relatively new inventions: support via email, self-support tools like FAQs even the ubiquitous toll-free number itself flourished in the last 30 years (and is now rapidly becoming irrelevant due to unlimited calling plans). The point is, we had to figure out each of these new service channels when they arose.

Social media provides, in many ways, the ultimate customer relationship tool. It's an opportunity for real, meaningful dialog between companies and customers. Like any relationship, it takes work, so you must be committed to it, It's scary that a loud, negative voice in social media can touch off a firestorm; but it's also the best opportunity for your advocates to spread the brand love and we all know how powerful the influence of a raving fan can be. Don't fear social media: use it as the opportunity it is to create brand loyalists, fans and advocates.

Dive in. Try things. Some will work, and some won't. These are tough problems, but you have to play if you hope to win.

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Lance Thornswood, Sr Director, Omnichannel, JCPenney

My favorite recent one was at Thanksgiving last year my son was complaining via Twitter about US Airways customer service. American's customer service jumped on it and invited him to book on them next time -- in a very clever and witty way. However, they were in the process of merging, so effectively making fun of their future business partner!


Being on social media implies being available via social media to address both sneers and cheers. Doing so requires a dedicated effort, vigilance and deft communication skills. All three are now table stakes.

That said, responding immediately and publicly to individual complaints isn't always prudent. Determining the point at which individual complaints begin to form patterns is an opportunity area for most retailers and brands. Proactive corporate statements and action steps are more appropriate in these cases, but will backfire if delayed. A recent and extreme example is the massive security breach that unfortunately, got "branded" as a Target problem. As complaints hit scale, all other corporate messages are drowned out. By then, it's too late.

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Carol Spieckerman, President, Spieckerman Retail

I was told by a C-level executive at a huge global CPG brand, that "Although we have an immense social presence, we do not have a social strategy." That statement and these finds are troubling... Not all that surprising, but definitely challenging. I am certain this issue is pervasive across the globe for merchants and brands, large and small.

Brands and merchants need to have dedicated people and advanced consumer sentiment tools constantly scouring the web, in all social channels, and identify, define, understand and prescribe appropriate actions for negative posts. Social media analytics capabilities can literally drive new loyalty and help avoid revenue extraction due to negative consumer sentiment.

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Ralph Jacobson, Global Retail Industry Analytics Marketing Executive, IBM

My company has a word to describe once-loyal consumers who have turned against a brand: Madvocates. They can be a brand's worst enemy, because they use word-of-mouth to influence the behavior of others.

Here are a few tips to encourage positive word of mouth and discourage Madvocates:

Don't discard the Madvocates. They have the energy and the inclination to tell positive stories if treated right.

Find your brand's word-of-mouth (WOM) Champions and treat them well. The chances are very good that you're already in contact with them within your rewards program. And the lesson is clear: "Hell hath no fury like a Champion scorned." Your WOM Champions are your potential Madvocates. Since Madvocacy is an attitude that nearly a third of all WOM Champions share and are willing and able to act upon, marketers should capitalize on the impact their programs can have on generating both positive and negative WOM.

Concentrate on performing the fundamentals well and delivering on your brand promise. Please the customers with excellent products and services and a rewarding experience, and they'll talk about you in their channel of choice. Nip any service problems in the bud and head off negative WOM that can quickly go viral from these well-connected customers. Therefore, prioritize
initiatives that satisfy customers over those that specifically target fueling word-of-mouth.

Consider building your own channels. For companies in high-involvement categories, we see great promise in community forums that companies sponsor and host. This might take the form of a forum for all owners of a certain model car to trade driving tips, service issues or the like; or for a frequent traveler to post advice and reviews. In addition to having one authoritative
go-to place where customers talk about your brand, it also makes for a convenient terrarium in which to observe what people are saying about you.

At a more advanced level, companies can correlate what is said by whom in such forums and link usernames and actual customers, thereby connecting online postings, purchase history, and service problems in the CRM database. In such forums, listen and participate, but don't try to micromanage or sell.

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Bryan Pearson, President and CEO, LoyaltyOne

Not paying attention to social media comments from customers is a big mistake. The statistics mentioned in this article surprise me, given the statistics that are related to the number of consumers who make decisions about who to buy from and what to buy based on customer comments. Here are just a few idea that companies can do to be "social media comment ready."

1. Monitor the channels.
2. Respond quickly to comments - both positive and negative - but especially the negative.
5. Recognize that when people are posting a complaint they want response quickly, not in a few days.
4. Don't argue online. Offer to help.
5. Repost a positive outcome when you've taken care of a customer complaint. Hopefully the customer will reciprocate and acknowledge their positive experience.

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Shep Hyken, Chief Amazement Officer, Shepard Presentations, LLC

I wouldn't say the efforts have been half-hearted, but rather siloed or focused on a particular aspect of the consumer/customer relationship - the "social media command center" or "brand health monitor" tends to be focused on aggregating sentiment and providing a gauge of what's happening in the social sphere. Social media customer service and support is a different thing, maybe more an extended function of the consumer affairs or customer support function where 1:1 interaction is more the name of the game. In any case, I think business in all industries are still feeling their way through social media.

I think it's important to consider integrating all of these efforts into a single view of the consumer/customer relationship as opposed to something separate. However, to do that well, at scale and cost effectively, you need to divine the customers and comments that are real, matter and have possible consequence, from those that do not.

Social media is an overwhelming idea for many executives because it has so many dimensions, from marketing and support, to actual sales and promotions. It would be good for both retailers and their suppliers to have a roadmap for achieving a state where social media and the larger social web (blogs, reviews, etc.) lives within a "customer value construct" that considers who to respond to, how quickly, and with what communication. It's conceptually like the vaunted "right offer, right time, right channel" message around marketing but a true big data challenge given the variety and sheer magnitude of the possible data.

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Gib Bassett, Retail and Consumer Goods Industry Principal, Oracle

1. Have a well thought out strategy to respond.

2. Be prompt to respond

3. Go the extra mile to resolve the complaint. Recognize people really are turned off to buying your product or service when they hear or read about how you failed other customers.

4.Learn from the complaints and create and implement a strategy to prevent them in the future.
Remember complaints are simply feedback from the universe. Use them to improve your company.

Tom Borg, Business Expert, Tom Borg Consulting, LLC

The telling statistic in the article is "only 17.6 percent of brands respond to customer complaints on social media within one hour (what most consumers expect), while 52.2 percent respond within 24 hours. More than 21 percent rarely if ever respond to complaints on social media."

I am still pleasantly surprised when I receive a response from a complaint or inquiry sent on a web form. The same messages sent via Twitter get a much quicker response from most brands.

This might indicate that brands only take customer care seriously when the complaint is out in the public stream and risk of not addressing it could go viral.

I hope this is not the case, but the observation is based on recent experience.

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Bill Hanifin, CEO, Hanifin Loyalty LLC

Retailers with a social presence should regard it as a customer service channel as much as or more than it is a sales channel. Those who acknowledge this dynamic actually have a great opportunity to help the bottom line as a well managed social engagement program can be much more cost effective than traditional telephone support.

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Martin Mehalchin, Partner, Lenati, LLC

The approaches to dealing with dissatisfied customers found on social media are pretty clean and well researched. First, get them to contact the company directly offline, as soon as you find them. Offer an apology online and then after you have addressed the issue, ask them nicely if they would be willing to post a follow-up to their previous issue.

Companies who do not address these issues treat social media complaints like any other -- they do not receive any higher priority. However, while a customer may have an issue instore and tell everyone around them, an unhappy social media customer tells the world. As a result, they must be prioritized.

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Mark Price, Managing Partner, LiftPoint Consulting, Inc.

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