By Jay Hinman

Ask any marketer today how he or she feels about customer complaints and there’s a good chance you’ll hear, “They’re never fun,” “They’re part of the job,” “There’s just so many of them,” or even, “We can’t make everyone happy.” Feedback that customer support and operations teams used to own has shifted to customer-obsessed marketing teams and evolved into a key component of the overall customer experience.

Customers today are more empowered than ever before. With just a few taps on their keyboards or phones, they can leave reviews online that linger in place and shape public perception of a company or a brand – for better or worse. Negative customer feedback is particularly worrisome as it poses a threat not only to a company’s reputation but also its bottom line.

Online reputation management has never been more important. When you consider that nearly 95 percent of consumers now read online reviews before making a purchase, you start to understand the pressure marketers face. While they often feel like they’re playing defense, marketers should take heart.

The Silver Linings of Complaints
Online reputation management can certainly be a tricky dance, especially given the ever-increasing number of channels where customers can share their experiences. While marketers can’t control what customers say about their companies or brands online, they are more empowered than they often realize.

For starters, marketers can control how a company responds to customer complaints online. They can also choose to employ online reputation management software to better understand the voice of the customer and act on it. Specific tools even offer customer complaint management systems. Marketers also have the ability to influence the sentiment customers – and potential customers – take away from a brand online.

Customer complaints offer important silver linings to marketers savvy enough to leverage them. Complaints indicate problems and when customers raise their concerns, companies learn how to improve their products. What’s more, when customers take the time to leave a review, marketers gain a unique opportunity to engage with them directly. By listening to and acting on customer feedback, companies can improve their overall customer experience, foster customer loyalty and gain new brand advocates.

How to Tackle Negative Reviews
Instead of fearing customer feedback, marketers should use it as an opportunity to shine. When it comes to negative reviews in particular, marketers should develop a process for online reputation management. While the nature of customer complaints will vary, the best practices marketers should follow to tackle them are consistent:

● Avoid the urge to delete: As unfair as a review might seem or as negative as a customer might be, marketers should resist the urge to delete customer complaints. Negative reviews actually reveal an authenticity consumers have come to expect. They understand it’s impossible for any company to make everyone happy, so only positive reviews could appear suspect. Instead, marketers should focus on effectively responding to the complaints they receive and boosting the credibility of their companies along the way.

● Respond swiftly: Tackling customer complaints quickly shows a company is responsive, cares about the customer experience and values the business of its customers. In today’s digital age, marketers have no excuse for not responding in a swift manner, particularly with online reputation management technology available.

● Apologize and empathize: Complaining customers often just want to be heard. After all, their perceived experience is their reality. This is why marketers should always apologize for the customer’s experience and try to empathize with him or her. When applicable, companies should also admit their mistakes. Doing so can not only reassure the customer but also help build or repair trust. Brands that go on the defensive run the risk of being cast as arrogant or uncaring.

● Be polite and professional: Marketers are representing their companies when they respond to complaining customers, so it’s imperative to stay polite and professional, regardless of a customer’s behavior.

● Highlight the company’s commitment to service: Marketers who are responding to customer complaints may be doing so from a reactive position but that doesn’t mean they can’t weave in important key messages. When crafting a response to a negative review, a marketer should absolutely highlight his or her company’s commitment to customer service and frame the customer experience in question as a one-off experience – an anomaly. Doing so shows potential customers that the negative review in question doesn’t accurately portray your company or services.

● Move the conversation offline: Once a prompt and empathetic initial response has been sent, marketers should try to move communication with complaining customers offline, to private channels. This prevents drawn-out, back-and-forth exchanges potential customers could see. Giving the customer a direct means of contact, such as a phone number or an email address, will usually help marketers move the conversation out of public view.

● Find and execute a solution: Once a marketer has moved the conversation with the complaining customer offline, he or she needs to get more detail on the customer’s problem to find a solution and execute it.

● Be genuine and authentic: While a marketer is working to get to the bottom of the complaint, he or she needs to communicate with the customer in a genuine and authentic fashion. This way, customers feel acknowledged and valued. After all, they did take the time to leave a review.

● Send specific, personalized responses: Similarly, marketers need to send specific, personalized responses to complaining customers. Avoid the temptation to automate, as one might do for certain positive reviews, because vague or canned responses could be seen as impersonal and further inflame the situation. Recent research indicates 90 percent of businesses understand the importance of personalization and respond to reviews manually.

● Don’t forget to follow up: Finally, don’t leave customers wondering. A marketer who has followed the above best practices would be remiss if he or she didn’t follow up with the complaining customer. By following up to ensure the customer’s problem has been resolved, the customer might be inspired to update his or her original review, or, potentially even, delete it altogether.

How companies respond to customer complaints online is incredibly important and visible, and marketers play a pivotal role. One bad experience doesn’t have to be the final say for that customer. Each customer interaction is an opportunity. With the right online reputation management strategies and tools, companies can differentiate themselves and show they’re willing to go and beyond to ensure a great customer experience.

Jay Hinman is the head of corporate marketing at Birdeye. He has over 25 years of B2B marketing leadership experience at global companies, such as Opera Software and MobiTV, and helped lead two startups to acquisition as vice president of marketing at Neumob and Skyfire

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