By Dawn Blizard
Your pizza sauce comes from a recipe that’s been in your family for three generations, and the ingredients are locally sourced, organic, and fresh. But some guy on Yelp says it tastes like rodent droppings on cardboard.
You install lawn sprinklers with care and precision, and hire only hardworking factory-certified professionals to assist you. But Angie’s List has you down as “sloppy” and “unreliable,” and you fear it’s reducing demand for your services.
You set up your Facebook page to receive customer comments to boost engagement, but now it’s full of complaints—and they’re petty, mean-spirited, or just plain unfair. You’re starting to feel like your Wall’s been defaced with malicious graffiti.
Your small business’s online presence has never been more important than it is today. If it’s strong, it’ll win you new customers, grow your sales, and build your brand’s reputation. Creating an attractive online platform for your business is cheaper than traditional advertising, and often more effective. But this online platform is more than just your website. It includes everything that’s been said about your company online. You can’t direct or control the entire conversation.
But you can improve your ability to manage it. In fact, you can turn negative reviews into an opportunity to showcase the strength of your commitment to customer service. By doing so, you’ll increase customer retention, bolster your reputation, and differentiate yourself from competitors. It’s cost-effective, and studies have shown this strategy to be astonishingly effective.
Here’s how to turn insults into golden opportunities:
1. Always respond
You might be tempted to ignore the haters posting on your Facebook wall. You may worry that you’ll end up doing further damage to your reputation if you get into an argument. Perhaps you feel that it’s best to handle your critics by refusing to stoop to their level.
But research suggests otherwise: Surveys show that 70% of customers who complain would do business with you again if you were able to resolve their problem. By responding, apologizing, and offering to make it right, you’d actually be able to keep the majority of these customers.
And retaining existing customers is far less expensive than pursuing new ones. Analysis by Bain and Company shows that it costs between five and 25 times as much to acquire a new customer as it does to retain an existing one. A modest increase in customer retention (5%) can boost profits by more than 25%.
The majority of dissatisfied customers do not complain. But those who do are offering your business a second chance. Take advantage of it, and you’ll see the benefits—increased customer satisfaction, retention, and profits.
2. Let your responses reflect business goals, not emotions
Many small business owners make the mistake of thinking that the purpose of social media is communication. For businesses, it’s not. What we gain from using these kinds of media is not so much the ability to share content with our customers as it is the ability to publish and archive a record of what we have shared.
All digital interactions with customers should be considered both public and permanent. Even an ostensibly private email exchange can be copied into Facebook or excerpted on Twitter. So whenever you respond to an angry customer, keep in mind the thousands—or tens of thousands, or even more—of potential future customers who might someday view that response.
Never allow your feelings for one individual customer—however provocative, unfair or downright crazy they might be—to dictate the tone of your communications to your entire customer base. Be calm, measured, even affectionate in your responses to online complaints. Be validating rather than dismissive, and understanding instead of argumentative. Remember that you are writing as the public face of your business.
3. Take online feedback seriously
In 2018 corporations throughout the U.S. will spend millions on customer intelligence research—collecting data through surveys and online analytics to better understand how their customers experience the company’s products and services. But small businesses can collect detailed data on their customers’ experiences for free, simply by paying close attention to online reviews.
Use the feedback you gather carefully and constructively. That doesn’t mean you have to make major operational changes each time someone offers a critical comment, but it does mean that you should be on the lookout for patterns. If multiple customers complain that the pizza’s cold when it arrives on Saturday nights, it might be time to add another driver—or redraw the map of your delivery area. Adapting in response to your customers’ feedback is one of the most important ways you can build their trust and earn their loyalty.
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4. Respect privacy and confidentiality
As a venue for complaining, social media is public. Many customers choose it for exactly this reason: They want an audience of peers, sympathizers, or fellow sufferers to hear their grievances, along with the business to which their words are directed. Your customer might feel disappointed, confused, or angry if you respond via email or a phone call—an alternate communication channel.
But you should never compromise a current or former customer’s privacy online. If you need additional information (like an account number) in order to help someone, respond by asking for a direct message with the information. Never ask for sensitive or private details on a public forum, and never reveal a customer’s name on a site (like Angie’s List) that doesn’t mandate that she publish it.
Do answer in the original channel first, even if it’s only to let the customer know that the problem must be handled elsewhere. Respond to let your customer—and all other online audience members—know what you’re doing. Tell them you’re there, you care, and you’re working on the problem. Let the public record reflect that.
5. Make online customer service a priority
Many small business leaders are attracted to social media marketing because of its low cost—and consequent potential for high ROI. But low cost doesn’t mean no cost; to engage effectively with your customers online does require significant investment.
If you decide to do it yourself, you’ll spend more time than money. But you’ll be taking that time away from other areas of your business, areas where your focused effort might be more directly linked to profits. If you choose to outsource online customer service to a professional social media manager, you’ll spend more, but will benefit from the professional’s expertise and efficiency.
You can perform a cost-benefit analysis—taking into account your business’s size and the current volume of online customer activity—to help you make this decision. Either way, you’re likely to see strong returns on your investment. Recent research shows that serving customers via social media takes less time and is and less expensive than telephone or email interaction. Some benefits, like improved business reputation or increased brand awareness, may be harder to measure, but are even more important to your ongoing success.
Customer complaints can be good for business
Today’s customers are increasingly turning to social media platforms and online review sites to offer initial feedback to businesses. What was often used as an escalation channel in the past—a place to turn when primary efforts to contact companies by telephone or email were unsatisfactory—has become the first place many people look for help.
This trend makes it possible to transform digital customer service into strong online marketing. Take advantage of it by turning complaints into a cost-effective growth engine for your business.