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When Bloomington, Ind.-based digital marketing consultant Jay Baer recently developed a survey to determine the effectiveness of customer service, he expected it to show that speed was critical. After all, speed is a big differentiator between businesses these days.

But he found the most critical thing is to just show up. One-third of complaints are never responded to, with the greatest fumbles taking place on social media sites like Facebook and Yelp, where companies that fail to respond to one person's complaint are often branded uncaring by others.

But if you "hug your haters" – a pet phrase he chose for the title of his recent book – you can boost advocacy for your brand, from both complainants and onlookers.

In a digital age, he divides complaints into two types: Offstage and onstage.

Offstage complaints occur initially in private, one-to-one with the company, usually by phone or e-mail. If the complaint is not handled well, it can be taken public.

Onstage complainers actually begin the process online, sharing their irritation with others. They tend to be more strident, and they complain more often, partly because they can do so from their smartphones in a matter of seconds.

Offstage haters are in the majority – his research found 62 per cent of complaints come initially through the telephone or e-mail. But as with so many other things, the balance is tipping toward digital.

That means your company needs to show up – to find out where the complaints are being made, and respond. And yes, it does involve speed as a secondary component, since that's the digital expectation. The average response to a social media complaint is five hours – when a business responds at all. But his survey found 39 per cent of social media complainers expect a reply within 60 minutes. So that expectation gap needs to be addressed.

He points to airline KLM, which has 150 employees answering complaints in social media alone, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Every interaction is answered, and the airline's Twitter and Facebook pages even tell you how quick the current response time is.

That might be a sobering example for many executives. But he says mobile devices, millennials and social marketing have disrupted traditional marketing – and now they are disrupting customer service.

"Customer service is a spectator sport now," he said in the interview. And because it's a spectator sport, you can gain points if you handle it well. It's well known that if a company handles a complaint well, it can win that customer back, even turn him or her into an advocate. With the world watching online, you can gain more than the customer's plaudits by adept service recovery.

His survey found that while answering a complaint by phone can lead to a 10-per-cent boost in advocacy for your company and responding by e-mail can boost fans by 8 per cent, the figures online transcend even that. Complaints properly handled on social media can increase advocacy by 20 per cent, on review sites by 16 per cent and on discussion boards by 25 per cent. In one Twitter exchange chronicled in the book, Discover Financial Services, which answers every complaint within 20 minutes whatever the channel, turned a hater into a supporter by responding in nine minutes.

With onstage haters, he recommends a five-step approach, captured in the acronym FEARS:

  • Find all mentions: It’s impossible to hug the haters you don’t see. Use Google alerts and social media listening software to know what’s being said in all channels.
  • Display empathy: Too many companies cut and paste generic responses preapproved by the legal department into their replies. “By definition, copy and paste lacks empathy,” he says. Show compassion. Say you’re sorry. Be human.
  • Answer publicly: Companies prefer to take public complaints into private channels of response, not wanting to air their dirty laundry openly. “But if you are doing it well, why wouldn’t you do it in public?” he asks. “Go on the record and show the public you care.”
  • Reply only twice: There is no upside after two responses – just walk away. The people watching the exchange will see you care, even if the complainant remains unbending.
  • Switch channels: If you need private information from the complainant, such as account numbers, you may have to switch channels. Or some social media outlets may chop your discussion into inconvenient bites. When people complain offstage, you shouldn’t switch channels – don’t ask somebody complaining by e-mail to phone your call centre – but on stage, sometimes a change of venue is needed.

Customer service is changing in an online world and you have to change with it. Put your fears aside and put FEARS to work instead.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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