Your Field Guide to What it Means When Someone Complains About Your Brand Online

by Mack Collier

J0202218It can be a scary (online) world out there, y’all.

For brands, this online world is particularly scary because they are very visible targets.  There’s no shortage of complaints and negative comments being hurled at them.  What’s worse, if they ignore the comments, they tend to multiply.  What’s even worse, most brands aren’t sure how to respond.  It can easily become a no-win situation.

So if we accept that your brand can’t ignore negative comments and complaints online, then we need to figure out how you will respond to them.  But before you can respond appropriately, you need to properly assess who you are responding to!

The Three Types of People That Will Complain About Your Brand

When you encounter a negative comment about your brand online, you need to understand who it is coming from, because that impacts how you will respond.  Negative brand comments come from one of three sources: Angry customers, passionate fans or trolls.  Here’s how to recognize each.

1 – Angry customers.  This is the most comment source of complaints you will see online.  Typically the complaint will deal with a very specific issue that this customer is having, and nothing else.  The complaint may include some larger statements about how this issue reflects poorly on your brand, but these are typically included to stress to the brand the need to pay attention to the person and fix their problem.  

Example complaint from an Angry Customer: “I just bought your writing software program and I can’t get it installed on my PC, and I can’t get anyone to help me!  I followed the instructions I found online (no manual included, why did I have to go online for instructions?) and it still won’t start.  I called your 1-800 customer service line and it said there was a 2 hour wait!  I just left a tweet to @SoftwareCustomerService on Twitter but so far no response!  Look I just want to get this product working, but I can’t get anyone at your company to help me!  Can you please call me at 1-800-frustrated customer or email me at”

Note the complaint is only about their specific issue and how they want a resolution.  That’s it.  Note also that this customer is only contacting you because he tried to get the help he needed by himself, and couldn’t.

2 – Passionate fans.  This one is difficult for the untrained eye to spot.  The difference between a complain coming from a fan is that since the fan views themselves as owners of your brand, they feel an obligation to bring the issue to your attention.  But the fan will also communicate to you how you should resolve the issue, or they will offer to help you resolve the issue.  This is the easiest way to differentiate a complaint from a passionate fan vs a complaint from an angry customer.  The angry customer simply wants you to resolve THEIR issue, then they could care less if you fix the larger problem with your brand.  Whereas a passionate fan will focus less on a specific issue and more on how this is a larger problem for your brand, that needs to be corrected.  The fan will typically offer advice and suggestions for fixing the problem or making it better.  And they will frequently volunteer to work with you to help implement their suggestions.  Again, fans view themselves as owners of your brand, so they feel they have ‘skin in the game’ and will act in what they perceive to be the brand’s best interests.

Example complaint from a Passionate Fan: “Hey there! I’m a frequent customer at your restaurant on 201 Church Ave and typically love the service I get there when I come in for lunch.  However, over the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed that lunchtime service seems to be getting slower and slower, and the line of customers waiting to have their orders taken seems to get longer each time I go there for lunch.  I do notice that there seems to be several new members working there, so perhaps it’s just a matter of them needing to get up to speed.  But I have to say, I’m starting to notice that customers are leaving due to the long lines and going elsewhere for lunch, I hate to see you lose business due to slow service!”

Here, the person is careful to identify herself as someone that frequents this location, and that she is typically happy with the service there.  Also, she is careful to point out how the long lines are having an impact on the brand, by driving customers away to a competitor.  The tone isn’t angry, instead its sympathetic, she’s hoping that your brand will correct these issues, because she is a fan.

3 – Trolls.  Trolls typically attack the brand in vague terms rather than specific issues or events.  Rather than complaining about a specific issue with your brand, they might try to attack your brand based on your brand supporting certain charities or causes or political candidates.  Or they might complain about your products or service in general, and not focus on specific interactions they have had with your brand.  ‘You suck’ is their catch-phrase.  A troll simply wants attention and engagement, whereas angry customers or fans want a resolution.  Trolls just want you to keep engaging them, and they will typically try to piss you off in order to make that happen.

Example complaint from a Troll: “Is your brand still trying to act like it cares about the environment?  You can launch all the ‘go green’ initiatives you want, but we both know it’s purely propaganda, your brand doesn’t care about the environment, you are only piggybacking on a popular marketing trend for your own benefit!”

Note the attack is very vague and the claims are difficult/impossible to substantiate.  Again, the idea is to spark a response, ideally an angry response, at which point the troll would likely claim that they were being attacked by your brand.  Remember the saying ‘Don’t feed the troll’.

Tomorrow I’ll go more in-depth into how to respond to negative comments online.  But in short, here’s a quick cheat-sheet for responding to complaints online, based on the person making the complaint:

Angry customer – Resolve their specific issue as soon as possible.  Try to move the exchange offline so you can get specific information from them.  Also communicate to the appropriate teams internally where the customer encountered breakdowns in the customer service chain that resulted in their complaint.  Make sure you followup with the customer and ensure that their issue is resolved to their satisfaction.  Handling a complaint from an angry customer effectively is the quickest way to convert a detractor into a fan of your brand.

Passionate fan – Communicate to the fan that you are taking their feedback seriously, and will forward their recommendations to the proper people within your brand.  Ask the fan if they would be interested in giving you more feedback related to your brand.  A true fan will jump at this chance and it’s an opportunity to build an ongoing relationship with your fan.

Troll – In general, it’s best to ignore trolls.  If they are trolling on your site/blog, you are typically within your bounds to delete their comment, especially if it is a vague attack.  If they are leaving comments on another site, it’s still best to ignore them, but if they continually harass your brand you should contact the site administrator and ask them to look into the troll’s actions.

Jerome Pineau November 18, 2013 at 8:04 am

Still, the most dangerous and damaging customer/fan is the one who quietly walks away without ever engaging your brand online.

And as every customer who bitches online is an opportunity for a turnaround and WOM marketing, very negative (and very positive) brand engagements are always preferable to neutral silence.

Just my 2 cents.

Mack Collier November 18, 2013 at 8:08 am

Correct, Jerome. And most people won’t complain to the brand, to your point they will just tell other customers about their experience, which will result in negative WOM about the brand and fewer sales.

By proactively helping customers online, the brand also gets a heads-up from these customers where the problems are, so they can correct them and that leads to less negative WOM.

I saw a keynote a few years ago from Guy Winch who remarked that most people will complain to everyone about a problem with a brand except the brand itself, IOW they will complain about the problem to everyone except the people that can actually DO something about the problem!

Sht Lst January 3, 2014 at 12:57 am

Agreed! 90% of dissatisfied consumers won’t complain to the offending firm, but will tell their friends.

Negative WOM is very damaging to brands and companies need to do a better job of encouraging feedback.

Kerry O'Shea Gorgone November 18, 2013 at 9:01 am

Just saw on “Bar Rescue” last night that 7.5 out of 10 dissatisfied restaurant patrons never complain: they just don’t come back. So, to some extent, complaints are desirable, or at least preferable to not hearing where your service needs improvement. To be sure, tone matters. 😉 I love the way you’ve broken down how to respond (or whether to respond) based on who’s complaining and their true motivation.

Mack Collier November 18, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Thank you Kerry! I can understand why companies don’t want to see complaints online but a key advantage is the more a brand handles complaints online the BETTER they get at handling complaints. So in theory, there will be fewer complaints! Plus people will be more likely to defend the brand when future complaints arise.

Jerome Pineau November 18, 2013 at 12:19 pm

The caveat is to not train customers to use social as a chain rattling tool – if you reward that behavior it gets real hard to scale.

Amanda November 22, 2013 at 3:08 pm

That’s an interesting point. I wonder about the idea of designating a point person for dissatisfaction. It could be risky, but the idea of demonstrating that you have an active interest in sustained improvement efforts might shift the conversation online to the comprehensive approach to customer service. It does seem to come back to staff and making sure that they are conditioned/trained/incentivized to strive to have each interaction culminate in a positive experience.

Jerome Pineau November 22, 2013 at 3:16 pm

It scales better when everyone is trained to properly triage and then address complaints — provided they’re empowered. And also trained to handle mistakes — meaning they can fix the inherent problem, feed back the info to the appropriate division/team, then circle back to the customer with the applied fix. In many cases there is good intention but the process breaks down somewhere and then people think “yeah, they talk a nice big deal, but they don’t really fix the issues…” –

Davina K. Brewer November 20, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Jerome, that’s more than 2 cents worth! BTW Mack your troll example is way too good. 😉 Most of the flame-throwing, anonymous rabble rousers I’ve read don’t even put that much effort into it, hence the block, ignore, delete and move on. Think you are all right – it boils down to motivation. Someone takes the time to pick up the phone, brands should listen; if they go online and put their names behind it, they should look deeper to the ‘why’ before engaging, responding.

Who matters – is it a name or some random keyword? A handle? Are they a hit and run poster, or has this person been reviewing/rating a while? (I.E. Yelp, TripAdvisor; if it’s it a one-time wonder – pan or rave – think twice before overreacting.)

Why matters – is it, per Jerome, someone just fishing for a freebie or do they have a legit complaint and/or suggestion? (I.E. tech support issues, how often it’s user error or someone blaming the computer company when they installed crappy, bootlegged malware.)

The Plan matters – It’s all too easy these days for someone to pass on the 800 #, decide the ‘contact us’ form is too much like work and just start blogging, tweeting, posting. Whether you want to conduct CRM, customer service or support online in public view (or not!), you need a strategy for it. And FWIW ‘ignore and hope it goes away’ isn’t a plan.

Mack Collier November 24, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Thanks Davina, it’s always a good idea to try to understand the motivations of even the trolls :)

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