Haters are not your problem…ignoring them is.
The near-universal adoption of smartphones and social media has fundamentally altered the science of complaints. Critics (“haters”) can now express their displeasure faster and more publicly than ever.
Based on my research with Edison, we found two main hater types, “Onstage” haters, who publicly launch complaints via social media and online review sites, and “Offstage” haters, who conduct their complaints via more private channels such as email and phone.
There are no meaningful differences in educational level or annual income between hater types. There are also no gender differences of note between onstage and offstage haters.
However, men complain more often across all channels combined. In our research, we found that 22 percent of men have complained to a business seven times of more in the past year, compared to 16 percent of women.
Age has a significant impact on how and where people complain
More than 90 percent of American complainers in nearly every age category have complained offstage via phone or email in their lives. With regard to onstage haters, young people are far more likely to have complained via social media, discussion boards, forums, and online review sites than have older consumers. More than 80 percent of 25 to 34 year-olds have complained publicly, compared to 58 percent of survey respondents age 65 or older.
The “look at me” ethos
Facebook is a favorite haven for onstage haters. But when examining the relationship between channels and complaints, I begin to wonder whether Facebook‘s pervasiveness, ease-of-use, and “look at me” ethos is disproportionately fueling onstage haters. After all, you have to create status updates about something, and ‘I‘ve been wronged by this company’ is a good way to solicit interactions from friends and digital acquaintances.
Ninety-four percent of frequent complainers have a Facebook account, and among research participants that claim to use Facebook several times per day, nearly one-quarter of them have complained seven or more times in the past year. That group of hard-core Facebook fans is 300 percent more likely to be frequent complainers than are people who do not use Facebook at all.
Although the total number of users is smaller, this dynamic is even more pronounced with Twitter. While 70 percent of heavy complainers have a Twitter account, nearly one-third of the respondents who use Twitter several times per day are frequent complainers. Across every social media platform including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, WhatsApp, and WeChat the heavier the usage, the more likely the consumer is to complain about businesses. Given the proliferation of social media and social networks, this isn‘t going to change any time soon, if ever.
Do they want an answer or an audience?
Social media is facilitating complaints and breeding onstage haters. But the issues that are communicated in social media, review websites, discussion boards, and online forums are sometimes more frivolous than those in telephone or email interactions. Especially in social media, consumers often post quick missive without much depth.
Mason Nelder, Director of Central Insights and Social Business at Verizon, sees this difference every day:
“Typically, the people who send email have, I think, much more meaning behind what they‘re writing, because it‘s long-form. In social media, because it‘s short-form, it‘s much more emotional. It‘s almost like, if they took time to think about it and actually write about it appropriately, it might not be as emotionally charged.”
What we categorize as a “complaint” in social media (in particular) isn‘t a “complaint” in the same sense that a well-crafted email or a telephone call is a “complaint.” Instead, these short, social missives are often simply expressions of the current situation. And among heavy social media users, any customer experience falling short of perfect is legitimate grounds to instantly admonish the business. In the same way that bumper stickers are the most shallow form of political expression, social media grousing is the thinnest form of customer complaints.
Offstage haters want an answer. In many cases, onstage haters want an audience.
Our research found that when people complain in private they almost always expect a response from the business or company. Yet, when complaining in public, onstage haters expect a response roughly half the time or less. This ratio varies by channel.
Richard Binhammer agrees, recalling his time at Dell. “Often, even when customers are being difficult in public, they‘re just calling you out to get your attention. And once they‘ve got your attention they actually turn around and can become good customers.”
Only half of onstage haters actually want help
This distinction is also evident in other countries. A survey of 2,000 online complaints in the Netherlands in 2013 by TNS found thirty percent were venting negative feelings, and 23 percent were seeking vengeance. Only 48 percent wanted help.
My friend from high school and college Alan Moir is disproportionately concerned about beverage temperature. He is fond of saying—without irony, that ― ”there‘s no such thing as too much ice.” This is perhaps an unexpected thing to obsess over for a Canadian, since the “drinks must be as cold as possible” notion is a uniquely American construct.
Yet, a person like Alan can quite easily use social media to proclaim, “Hey, Le Pain Quotidien! How about some more ice in the lemonade” while still drinking that same lukewarm beverage. He can express his displeasure in an instant, at no personal cost. He may even be able to interact with the brand (which can be a bit of thrill) or at the very least, put it out there for his friends in social media to react to alongside him.
Guy Winch explains why we do this in his book The Squeaky Wheel:
“When we complain, we hope to purge the frustration, anger, or irritation that is generated by our dissatisfaction. Indeed, the expression getting it off our chest refers to the palpable lightness, the cathartic easing of internal tension, we hope to experience by speaking up about a troubling complaint. But what creates the catharsis is not the voicing of our complaints aloud, but rather voicing them to another person.”
It‘s much easier to get it off our chest online that it is offline. Would Alan take the time to telephone about that issue? Would he sit down at a computer and write out an entire email? No. The platform used to voice the complaint usually fits the nature of the crime against the consumer. The bigger the issue, the more likely it is that contact will be through private, offstage channels. This is true of the first complaint only. If an issue requires more than one contact to satisfactorily solve, a much different scenario can occur.
Even though the tragedy of a beverage-specific ice shortage isn‘t cause for a move to DEFCON 4, the business in question still has to deal with it, because it‘s now in the public domain. And if you don‘t answer that complaint, it not only reduces the customer advocacy of the complainer, anyone looking on might be frustrated and disappointed in your lack of attention as well.
Customer service is now a spectator sport
When delivered online and in public, a lot of what we call complaints would be classified as a comment if delivered offline, if delivered at all. Annoyances that formerly would have qualified for an inner monologue of “oh, that sucks” now spur a “oh, that sucks and I should share it with the world.”
But to garner the attention from companies, their friends, and the public at-large, onstage haters often have to up their rhetorical game, to stand out amidst the same messaging clutter that companies have to face when trying to market their wares.
“The complainers? They have to break through the noise as well,” Mason Nelder concurs. This is why many onstage haters‘ complaints are delivered in an outlandish and overwrought fashion, way out of proportion to the seriousness of the issue. On first contact, we right-size our channel (smaller problems are registered with onstage complaints) but we do not right-size how we describe our angst.
I implore you to spend 45 glorious minutes watching the Youtube channel of a production company called Gotta Kid to Feed. The channel is titled “Real Actors Read Yelp Reviews,” and it‘s a hilarious collection of 23 (and counting) short videos. They illustrate precisely what I mean about onstage haters employing amazing rhetorical flourishes to get noticed.
British Airways: what not to do
To stand out and make sure they are heard, onstage haters sometimes go beyond inflammatory language and ensure they have an audience (from the company and beyond) by buying it. In 2013, Hasan Syed‘s father flew British Airways to Paris, and his luggage was lost. Syed went to the British Airways Twitter account to complain, but found that the account was not monitored during the evenings. Frustrated, Syed spent more than $1,000 to buy advertising on Twitter, delivering a tirade of anti-British Airways tweets to hundreds of thousands of users. He specifically targeted followers of the British Airways Twitter account with “Thanks fur ruining my EU business trip #britishairways. I shouldn‘t have flown @BritishAirways. Never flying with you again.”
Despite the scope and scale of this rancor, British Airways replied with:
“Sorry for the delay in responding, our Twitter feed is open 0900-1700 GMT. Please DM your baggage ref and we‘ll look into this.”
Remember, haters aren‘t the problem. Ignoring them is. British Airways has flights around the clock. Yet their customer service is open 10 hours per day, at least on Twitter. Without this gap, would Syed have purchased ads? Of course not.
British Airways could have answered his initial tweet in 15 minutes, even at night. But that‘s not how their customer service program works. KLM would have answered Syed because their program is set up to do so.
In situations like these, hugging your haters can be a major competitive differentiator.
Drawn from Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers, about which Guy Kawasaki says: "This is a landmark book in the history of customer service.” Written by Jay Baer, Keynote Speaker and Marketing Expert, Hug Your Haters is the first customer service and customer experience book written for the modern, mobile era and is based on proprietary research and more than 70 exclusive interviews. For more information, visit www.JayBaer.com.