For marketers in the digital age, negative customer feedback that takes on a life of its own is a nightmare. And for customers, the notion that any of us can talk back to big companies and have our claims addressed feels like a dream.
The sheer volume of online feedback means it’s almost impossible for companies to act on every complaint. Most brands are playing catch-up: in 2013 only 30% of brands had a dedicated customer service handle on Twitter, and only 10% of those brands with customer service handles reply to more than 70% of their mentions. Most brands do invest in “social listening” programs, from monitoring software to teams of analysts who scan the feeds in the
of muffling bad feedback and amplifying positive feedback. But what’s the real impact of such programs?
As a consultant in PR and social media, I thought I knew. But a recent experience made me question some of my assumptions about consumers, “influencers,” and the companies who can make a difference.
Just a few months ago, I was wrapping up a busy year of travel to wait out the last few weeks of my third pregnancy. I’m no road warrior, but I do clock an average of 100,000 miles a year, meaning I have some elite status on various airlines. Once I became too pregnant to fly, I decided to contact the airlines to make sure I could hold on to my miles despite the fact that most airlines have year-end deadlines for collection and rollover.
But the airlines flatly refused to accommodate my pregnancy or even allow me to purchase the miles necessary to maintain my status. Since this would have a real impact on my future travel costs and my small company’s bottom line I decided to post an article on Medium and enlist other working moms to provide their experiences as pregnant business travelers. I called out two specific airlines, using their Twitter handles when I tweeted the piece.
The piece went viral: it was one of Medium’s top 25 most passed along stories of the week; it was picked up by Yahoo! Travel, Inc., and Fortune Magazine. My Twitter feed exploded. An editor at the highly influential magazine Travel + Leisure picked up the cause, and helped me push it out to additional networks.
This all happened back in early December 2014. And what have I since heard from these companies?
Nothing. Zilch. Nada.
Did the airlines just not see the story? Did they not care to respond? I called them for a comment, but never heard back.
The truth is, I assumed the scale of the response on social media plus my customer loyalty merited a response from the airlines. But maybe it just didn’t. Or maybe they never even really heard it at all.
There are a lot of sophisticated tools out there that do social listening, but those tools are still limited. As Jessica Randazza, Head of Marketing for Danone-Nutricia, told me, “Brands are told they need to do this social listening, but they aren’t always reading the data correctly.” Behind the curtain, the truth of most social media listening is akin to the infamous TPS reports in the classic movie Office Space. Reports – sometimes just spreadsheets of tweets — often get sent to a brand team where they sit on a desk, unread and piling up. I’ve been there myself. To be a great social media strategist you have to dive into the data, employ humans to listen, and most important, decide what to do next. The “Now What” is as important as the “Let’s take a closer look.” And those asking need to have the corporate decision making power to move a complaint forward and escalate change.
Take the challenge of the simple “sorry” tweet. Unmetric, a media analytics company, analyzed the number of apology tweets written by airlines between January and April of 2014. Of all of the company’s twitter replies, 64.22% of Southwest Airlines’ tweets were apologies with US Airways coming in second with 59.64%. At the other end of the spectrum, British Airways apologized zero times via Twitter during the same period.
But what are these apologies within the context of a company’s wider social media company strategy? Are these quick “we’ll look for your lost luggage” responses helping companies authentically connect with consumers? Are they canned responses? A more thoughtful connection offering suggestions or even an explanation of company policy? The simple dashboard can’t tell us.
Randazza highlights another hurdle. In regulated industries, she notes there may also be significant concern that customer fueled conversations could result in bigger problems than companies are ready to confront. Legal or regulatory departments might advise ignoring feedback rather than risking a deeper conflict.
Despite these hurdles, some companies do manage to change. Consider Makers Mark. When the company announced a change to their product, they told consumers that high demand and low supply would result in the lowering of alcohol content. Consumers were outraged and the brand quickly responded — showing loyalty and a willingness to listen. Maker’s issued an apology and reversal of the decision; that Facebook announcement received nearly 28,000 likes alone.
It’s crucial to be prepared for these moments and not only own them, but be legally enabled to transform them into good press and strong marketing opportunities.
Imagine if one of the airlines had reacted with this in mind. It could have opened up a larger conversation about women business travelers. In this “lean in” era, companies and individuals who are aware of equity issues are lauded and celebrated. Take a recent Fortune commentary by Katharine Zaleski. The start-up executive and new mom recently apologized to the mothers she disparaged while working at the Huffington Post and Washington Post. Her piece was shared widely across platforms and while she started an important conversation, she also raised awareness about her relevant new start-up “Power to Fly,” an online platform that matches women with technical skills to freelance projects. Best (free) press she could have ever received.
My experience with the airlines changed how I approach my work. First, for years, I have been instructing brands to religiously listen to their customers through online channels like Twitter. Public relations aside, why wouldn’t an organization take advantage of the world’s greatest free focus group? It was easy for me, as a consultant, to give this advice. I realize now that listening isn’t enough. The best brands don’t just listen – they use online customer feedback to evolve and they ensure digesting and understanding social media feedback is part of their strategy. That is when social listening becomes social learning.
I still believe, though, that ignoring social feedback is a missed learning opportunity for any company. When companies listen, consumers remember. Missteps and failure don’t damn a brand in the digital age. But failure to learn does.