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The One Key Insight You Need To Avoid A Customer Service Disaster

I’ve been listening to Dan Ariely’s “The Upside of Irrationality“, which is the follow-on book to his very popular “Predictably Irrational” that I listened to earlier in the year.

Dan Ariely's The Upside of IrrationalityOne of the chapters I just finished takes a look at our desire for revenge when we feel hard done by. Dan illustrated with plenty of examples, including one of a couple of guys who got such bad service at a hotel that they produced a video about it that went viral, and another about the difficulty of changing Apple iPod batteries, which prompted some disgruntled customers to spray paint every single iPod poster ad in New York they came across.

In each example, the consequential bad press that comes about from just one or two upset customers is significant. After the fact, it is very clear that the company should have done everything it could to appease the upset customer.

As I was listening to Dan explain the outcome of his research experiments into our desire for revenge, I started to think about those few times over the years that I have received emails from people who were upset with me.

Whether it was a blog reader, or newsletter subscriber or a customer who bought one of my products, if they feel upset, they use very strong language to tell me. There’s something about the energy behind a complaint, the motivation a person feels when they feel something has impacted them negatively or they see a mistake that came from another person, that drives them to say, and even do, some pretty irrational things.

The Desire To Matter

I believe, at the core, the reason we react with such passion in any situation where we feel we have been the victim of bad service or any kind of discrimination is that we all desire to feel we matter.

If we receive poor customer service, we are being treated in a way that undermines our value as a human being. It is that personal.

We want recognition of our value and that comes from other people when they treat us with respect. This is especially important when something we perceive as bad happens to us, when another person promised that it won’t. If someone else made a mistake, we suffer, and they don’t respond with an adequate reply, that’s a crime worthy of a hefty response.

How a person responds when they feel they are a victim of poor customer service or a faulty product really depends on the perceived magnitude of the “crime” and what type of person they are. The challenge as a business owner, is keeping up a standard that can be applied as uniformly as possible, so as to over-deliver in customer satisfaction, and on the rare occasion something goes wrong, you respond to it quickly and appropriately.

The Internet Loves To Spread Bad News

Several years ago Rich Schefren wrote about how quickly the internet can spread bad press. If left unchecked, within days reputations can be ruined, so much so that an entire company can go under as a result.

One of the primary examples Rich shared was that of Kryptonite Bike Locks, which suffered significant bad press that spread like wildfire, after a video was released showing how their locks could be opened just using a standard Bic pen.

Many years ago during my first or second year of blogging, I was still learning how to deal with the social nature of comments. At the time a flame war erupted in the comments on my blog. The battle didn’t include me at first, but because some of the comments made were quite slanderous and without any proof to back it up, I felt it necessary to delete the entire thread.

Boy was that a mistake.

A person who was making many of the comments felt I was censoring their voice, which I was. I censored the entire conversation because I didn’t like the idea of hosting comments that might potentially get me in legal trouble.

The mistake I made in this case, was underestimating the reaction I would get from this person and not doing enough to manage expectations. I simply deleted the comments without warning or consultation. I didn’t even email the people who left the comments to explain why I was doing it.

As a result of this the person decided to have a go at me too, by writing an entire blog post about how I had censored their conversation on my blog. This blog post managed to capture a bit of attention within my niche, even prompting a few other bloggers to write about it. I continued to add fuel to the fire, by defending myself through comments.

The battle raged for a while, and in typical flame war style I had trouble getting my points recognized. Everything I wrote was picked apart and thrown back at me as evidence of my crimes. Eventually I realized that in a flame war or any discussion with an online “troll”, you are best to just leave them alone. Any attention you give just provides them with more fodder.

Eventually it all died down and was forgotten, but not before my blog and name had reached a few more people in my industry, in perhaps not the ideal way. I did apologize for the part that I felt I handled badly – deleting comments without explaining why first – but for the most part the whole thing became a lot larger than it should have.

That’s the risk with the internet. You never know who you are pissing off, who is taking offense to your words or what type of person is consuming your content. There’s a potential blowout of bad press if you make just one tiny error that happens to impact a person who is prepared to complain in public places.

The Best Customer Service Advice I Can Give You

Years ago I wrote about what I consider the “secret” to good customer service.

To put it simply, you just need to acknowledge people exist.

In the online world that means the act of replying to an email is the most important thing. You don’t even need to reply with a solution to the problem. All you need is to say that I hear your voice, which a reply does, and keep the line of communication open and responsive.

This backs up what Dan Ariely writes about in his book on the power of saying sorry or offering an explanation for why something happened. He explained how a new Audi car he bought broke down within months of purchasing it, unfortunately while he was driving on the freeway at 70 miles per hour, resulting in a very scary experience.

Dan received terrible customer service from Audi after the car broke down, which triggered his initial research into the desire for revenge because he felt the urge for retribution from Audi. A month later when collecting the repaired car from Audi, the repairman gave him the keys with a simple comment – cars break down. This statement made Dan feel just a little bit better.

I experienced similar situations during my time working at a help desk in university. There is one particular example I remember clearly, where I came down to start my shift in the middle of a confrontation between a particularly upset middle aged lady and one of my fellow help desk staff.

Since my colleague was wrapping up her shift, I took over helping the lady with her problem. She was clearly angry when I began listening to her. As it turned out, I couldn’t actually solve her problem, however I did what I am good at – I made eye contact, listened to her, acknowledged her complaints with little hmms and ahs when appropriate, and did my best to give her the feeling that she was being heard.

John Grey's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus Guide To RelationshipsBy the end of the interaction she had calmed down and even thanked me despite the fact that I couldn’t actually fix her problem. I did offer a couple of options to follow up on, but that didn’t matter nearly as much as the emotional satisfaction she felt because someone was willing to acknowledge her problem.

Now maybe this situation is just an example of what John Grey talks about in his very popular “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” book, where he explains how women want to be heard, and men want to provide solutions and fix problems, but it doesn’t really matter. The most important point is that a customer first needs to know that you care about what has happened to them.

Customer Service Begins With Acknowledgement

I’ll leave you with one piece of advice, which I hope will help you avoid any irrational responses from disgruntled customers.

Acknowledge whatever your customers come to you with, no matter how inconsequential, basic or trivial.

That acknowledgement should be in the form of some kind of concrete reply, ideally delivered as quickly as possible. It doesn’t need to be a solution, just a “yes, I am listening and I hear you“.

If you have the resources to take this concept beyond your customers to every person you or your business comes into contact with, then you have just discovered one of the best forms of marketing in today’s social internet environment.

I personally find it very hard to find the time to reply to every comment made to my blog, on facebook, tweets, youtube comments, linkedin messages, and emails – and this is just within my own social world – that doesn’t include other people’s blogs and social media profiles. However some people manage to do it, which shows it is possible. As always, do what I teach, not necessarily what I do or do not do, if you can.

To drill down the thesis of this article into two simple ideas, I consider the key to success as a content marketer online (which is what we all are), is to make sure you do two things well:

  1. Distribute value
  2. Acknowledge the people who respond to the value you create

That’s all there is to it. Do this well and you will enjoy a healthy relationship with your tribe and all the fruits that come with it.

Yaro Starak

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