Listening to Customer Complaints…

...And the surprising pessimists who will tell you not to

By Shabbir J. Imber Safdar

For many big brands, the value of social media is about creating a more personal and tighter connection with their customers.  However, getting closer to your customers exposes all the flaws in your relationship.  For many brands with perpetual service problems, or the public perception of service problems, social media quickly becomes all about customer service, as seen by Comcast or H&R Block. 

These companies have recognized that they need to take the bull by the horns and prospect for complaints, resolving them as quickly and publicly as possible.  You can't start there on day one, but you can start by looking for your own flaws.

Organizations that cannot see the flaws their customers see become vulnerable to online social media crises.  As time goes on, these flaws become an endemic part of the brand, and the eventual spillover into both mainstream and online media creates crisis communication problems for the company's public relations professionals.
The first step to addressing these issues is to start listening to your customers, and to try and get the organization to take action with the worst of their complaints.  In this article demonstrates how to use a free tool to gather this feedback from your Website visitors.  You don't need a Twitter strategy, or a Facebook strategy, or a clever YouTube video series.  You just need to listen to your customers’ complaints.

Step 1: Find out how your users express their frustration. Every organization that has customers also has someone, somewhere, who deals with them, and who feels like they are under-appreciated.  Most likely, it's the customer support staff who hear customer complaints all day.  Maybe it's the front desk receptionist that people call out of desperation, or even the person that reads the main email address listed on the company Web site.

As your organization's lead communicator, it is your burden to listen to your customers to detect long-term frustrations that could bubble into a crisis. An obvious source of complaints would be found in the incoming emails, or the newly opened support cases, but those might not yield the material you need, or there might be an inter-departmental approval hurdle to jump.  Presumably, your customers aren't in open revolt online already, so finding comments on Twitter isn't going to yield much.

How could you tap into a source of data directly?  You might try installing a Web site satisfaction survey, using a free tool such as 4Q.  4Q asks a percentage of your Web site visitors four key questions:

1.    How was your experience here today?
2.    What was the purpose in coming here?
3.    Were you able to accomplish your goal here today?
4.    What do you value most about this Web site?  Or, why weren't you able to complete your goal?

Step 2: Ignore the naysayers who are afraid of what you might find. Surveying users conjures lots of organizational fears from people who are uncomfortable with the expected outcome.  Here are some of the objections you will hear from your own colleagues:

"This isn't scientifically accurate, because more people who are unhappy will respond than happy people." This is not only a true criticism, but in your work to find your organization's vulnerable spots, you really want to get the unhappy people to speak up more.  Remember, you're not trying to make a statement like, "14% of our users are unhappy"; rather, you want to be able to say, "Our #1 customer complaint is XXXXXXXX". 

Anyone who tries to quantify the level of happiness is more concerned with ignoring the unhappy people.  This person is why change hasn't happened yet.

"We can't survey our users, it might create the expectation that we're going to fix the things they identify as problems, and we can't do that because of XXXXX." If you hear this from a peer or from a junior person, you have an organizational dysfunction you need to watch out for.  If, on the other hand, you hear this from senior management, you want to dust off your resume.

Step 3: Start amassing data to make your case. You've got data on the number-one customer complaint.  4Q makes it really easy to download your data right into a spreadsheet, where you can read over the free-form responses and categorize them.  I recently did this for my own professional Web site and realized a significant number of people were coming to my Web site specifically to find my phone number.  While they didn't list it as a complaint, looking at my homepage I realized it wasn't so easy to find, so I added it—such an obvious problem, and so easily solved.

Over a number of weeks, if your customers complain about the same issue, you can walk into senior management with your evidence and explain that, unless they want you to prepare an online crisis communications plan, they need to start dealing with the substance of these complaints.  In reality, if they're smart, they'll tell you to prepare the plan anyway while they fix the problem.

Shabbir J. Imber Safdar is the founder and chief analytics enthusiast at 12-year-old digital agency VirilionInc.  You can read more of his tips on his professional blog at, or learn more about the agency he founded at