Social Customer Service: Hug Your Haters

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The Internet has granted the masses freedom to publicly display their opinions in a variety of forums. This has been both a blessing and a curse to businesses, as they've been forced to confront a new kind of customer—"the onstage hater," as Jay Baer calls the type in his new book, Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers. Associate Editor Oren Smilansky recently caught up with Baer for wisdom on how to respond quickly and effectively to those who make their voices heard—loudly—about your business online.

CRM: Can you tell me about the research that went into this book, and some of the key findings?

Jay Baer: We partnered with Edison Research [and] interviewed more than 2,000 customers [to find out] who complains, where they complain, how they complain, and why. We found lots of interesting things in that data, but perhaps most relevant, [we found] there are two main types of complainers. There are offstage haters—the people who complain in private (telephone and email primarily now). And onstage haters—the people who complain in public. Those folks tend to use social media, review sites, discussion boards, and forums to interact with companies.

What are the biggest differences between these two groups?

The biggest difference between them is actually [in] what they expect. The people who complain in private—offstage—expect a response 90 percent of the time. However, the onstage haters—the people who complain online—expect a response a little bit less than 50 percent of the time. That presents an enormous opportunity for businesses of all types and sizes to actually hug their haters—to answer the onstage complaints. Because when you [answer] and people don't necessarily expect it, it makes a tremendous impact on customer advocacy.

The core of our research project was to measure advocacy both before and after a complaint was answered, if it was answered at all. What we found is that you could have up to a 30 percent increase in customer advocacy just by answering a single onstage complaint, which is a huge opportunity for businesses.

Of the two groups—the offstage haters and the onstage haters—which is more important to focus on?

I wouldn't say "more important." One has more opportunity than another. Right now across all companies, about two thirds [of those making complaints are] offstage, and one third [are] onstage. Because the offstage haters expect a reply at a 90 percent level, you really have to [answer them]. The advice in the book is certainly not to ignore phone calls or emails. That's not a good idea. But the opportunity in answering the phone and emails is not enormous; it's just expected at this point. The opportunity is [with] the onstage haters.

What are the obstacles preventing companies from being more responsive online? And how do you overcome them?

The hug-your-haters recipe is to answer every complaint in every channel every time. And that almost never happens online. Online, most companies answer some complaints, some of the time, in channels that they prefer. You can't get away with that on the telephone or through email. You can't say, "Look, we’re going to answer the phone calls that are positive, or we're going to answer only emails that are shorter than 200 words." Yet online we have convinced ourselves that this haphazard approach to customer service is totally fine.

Online customer service is a spectator sport. Ironically, we do it less comprehensively, less strategically, and in a less organized fashion online, when everybody's looking, than we do offline, when nobody's looking. So you see the problem there: We are operating this totally backward.

The reason most companies don't hug their haters is that online there's a lot of chatter—a lot of people are using social media, review sites, discussion boards, et cetera, to talk about companies, and it's much more difficult to find that chatter [online] than it is offline. If somebody calls you, you know they've called—your phone rings. If somebody emails you, [the message] shows up in your inbox. It's not quite that simple online, so there are some logistical hurdles to hugging your haters. There's also the problem of channel proliferation.

Fundamentally, you have to interact with your customers in the ground of their choosing, not the ground of your preference. You will never be a great company if you only interact with customers in the way that you prefer.

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