The potential of customer complaints

Why Major Companies Embrace Customer Complaints

Danny Groner keeps an eye on bloggers, even ones who don’t write about his company. As a manager for a stock image service – a burgeoning industry that caters to the ever-expanding blog world – he’s constantly looking for opportunities to distinguish his business from dozens of others. And he often finds new ideas from customer complaints.

It’s become a common strategy: watching conversations about your particular industry in real-time on Twitter and Facebook, poaching the complainers and transforming them into “brand advocates.”

Earlier this month, two bloggers took to Twitter to complain about the lack of interracial and ethnic couples in stock photos, and Groner saw a way to turn the customer complaint into a business opportunity.

“Good idea, can never have enough of those,” the manager at Shutterstock wrote to the two complainants. “Let’s see if we can make it happen.”

Within a week, the stock photo service had sent out a public message to its team of photographers – and Groner’s customers took notice.

“We’re on the lookout for authentic-looking photos of interracial and ethnic couples relaxing at a bed and breakfast,” read the tweet from Shutterstock.

“You’re awesome,” wrote one customer who was seemingly converted from critic to Shutterstock promoter at no cost to the company.

The Bezos Question Mark

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The business potential of customer complaints isn’t lost on one of the largest online retailers in the world. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com, has a public email address that he checks frequently for customer complaints. He forwards the complaint to the appropriate department, writing only a question mark to the email.

The Bezoz question mark sets off a panic in whatever department received it, with employees acting as though they’ve received “a ticking timebomb,” writes Bloomberg reporter Brad Stone in The Everything Store: Jess Bezos and the Age of Amazon.

“They’ve typically got a few hours to solve whatever issue the CEO has flagged and prepare a thorough explanation for how it occurred,” Stone writes.

And when an employee once questioned why so much effort is lost to the “question mark escalations,” Stone captured Amazon executives delivering a key piece of advice: “Every anecdote from a customer matters,” Senior Amazon VP Jeff Wilke said, as quoted in an excerpt of Stone’s book, posted to Bloomberg.

“We research each of them because they tell us something about our processes. It’s an audit that is done for us by our customers. We treat them as precious sources of information.”

Making Lemonade out of Customer Complaints

With a proliferation of social media and review sites, improperly handled complaints have a proven impact on revenue  – with one Harvard Business study reporting that a single star on Yelp.com can affect revenue by 10 per cent. But customer service professionals say that abiding by a set of principles can harness angry customers, change their attitude, and release them online as brand advocates.

1. Empower front-line staff. Instead of a “set of policies to hide behind,” giving representatives a broad mandate to fix the problem quickly, says Stacey Oliver-Knappe, owner of Customer Service Gurus training firm. Another specialist, Gayle Carson, calls on businesses to “hire the right person, train them well and give them free reign.”

“ Until they mess up, you really have to let them go,” she said.

2. Be willing to adapt.  Keep on top of common criticisms by developing a way to manage and track customer complaints. “Every day, you should be asking your customers, ‘How could we have made this better?’” says Carson, adding that complaints can often spawn new and better ways for your company to operate.  As evidenced in The Everything Store, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was willing to cancel an entire email marketing department after a customer complained about receiving inappropriate email promotions.

3. Don’t argue. Once a customer reaches out to complain, whether they are right or wrong is now a moot point, says Oliver-Knappe.

“It’s a losing battle,” she said.  ”You don’t help yourself by making the customer feel stupid or incompetent. Apologize and fix it!”

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