Brands, be thankful for angry customers

Simon Mainwaring / Brands / 9 years ago

Image Credit: Business Pundit

For a long time advertising has operated on a conceit that brands and consumers were in dialogue when, in truth, brands were dictating consumer behavior, pushing messaging on the public and often exploiting their trust or gullibility.

Phrases such as “We’re here to help you”, “We put you first” and notions like customer-centric companies sounded good, but as brands discovered more profit could be eked out of customers by manipulating their messaging, such language lost much of its meaning.

Thanks to information on the web and social media connectivity, consumers are now better informed and media savvy. By organizing themselves within social networks they have found their voice. The phrase “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind. Brands finally got the two-way dialogue they’d been talking about.

That two-way dialogue means brands can monitor in real time the hopes, frustrations and opinions of consumers – something they had to second guess before with the aid of research and focus groups. This is enormously valuable. On the downside, it means consumers are calling out brands for duplicity, disingenuous advertising or unconscionable behavior.

Yet brands shouldn’t fear angry customers. In fact, now that a two-way dialogue is in place, the dynamic functions as a self-correcting mechanism that can ensure the longevity and profitability of brands.

If a brand has a defined purpose, clear core values, and consistent communications (wow, that’s some steeplechase), its consumer base can serve as an invaluable feedback loop to keep the brand on track. As that authentic dialogue deepens, mutual trust grows with it.

A great example of this is the t-shirt company, Threadless. While its been rightly lauded for its crowdsourcing economic model, the integrity of the company is what strikes me as most revolutionary. Not only do they make sure that people want their products before they make them, but they never compromise their commitment to their original mission and community, both in terms of who they hire and how they run their business.

Brands that remain committed to their core values will keep and expand their community around shared values. If a brand makes the wrong strategic move, and every one does at some point, the community will set you straight. When they do, the correct brand response is, “Thank you”.

Disgruntled customers serve a compass once you’ve charted a course of authenticity. Better yet, consumers want to help and they’ll do it for free. As this new two way dialogue gets further entrenched through mainstream adoption of social media, the single most important defining quality of successful brands will be the quality of their listening.

Let me know of any good brand listeners? Are there any out there?

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  1. Avatar lloydgomez says:

    Great post. Thanks for this.

  2. Pleasure. Glad it was useful. Best, Simon

  3. Avatar Iconic88 says:

    Great post!

    Many people ignore or up the volume on a heated debate with a customer. I've always wondered why? Firstly, if you ignore, the repercussions of that customer telling their friends/family will only magnify. We only have to think of ourselves when it comes to sharing negative experiences. Secondly, by having a shouting-match with a customer makes YOU the person and the brand look unprofessional and unapproachable. Why add fuel to the fire right? Some brands espouse the customer is always right, but arguing with them lacks congruence.

    From my experience, listening and asking questions always gets to the root of the issue. Angry customers may start off yelling but our emotional gas tank has a limit. The more a person talks, the more our emotional gas tank empties, the calmer a person gets. The shorter the lead time between complaint and compassion, brands increase the likelihood of transforming that angry customer into a parochial ambassador.

    Best, Mahei

  4. Agree. Each angry customer is both an opportunity to improve your service by fixing the problem and a chance to make an unhappy customer a brand advocate. Plus, if you you approach complaints with this attitude, the way you deal with them is transformed. It's a win all round. Thx, Mahei.

  5. Avatar kumar says:

    Very interesting post, Simon. I had an experience with Dell recently, when I just didn't get a response to my problem from their tech support phone lines. I posted an angry note on the Dell Facebook page and immediately got a response on my mail; within a week, I got calls from their corporate office and my issue got solved. So, while I was impressed with their attitude, I wonder what somebody else witnessing my complaints on their page would make of it. I also wonder how a brand can keep consistently high service standards on a lage, global scale without the inevitable slip ups creating a bad image for them.

  6. Avatar Anonymous says:


    There are definitely some companies out there listening/monitoring (I know because I’ve helped a few of them myself).

    The challenge for companies – especially oil-tanker-like big ones – is that listening isn’t enough. They must also interpret what it is they’re hearing and then figure out what to do about it. And doing something meaningful about it is really, really hard. Typically that’s why PR departments have taken responsibility for ‘reputation management’ online (especially Twitter). If negative comments are posted, the PR guys can quickly respond with soothing noises or even a quick freebie if required. But that’s not real change. It’s very different from actually fixing the underlying problem that’s causing negativity in the first place.

    Comcast is an excellent example of this. Horrible customer service, a totally non-transparent pricing structure, etc. What do they do? Focus on solving a few people’s highly visible complaints on Twitter specifically to earn the company brownie points for a) ‘listening to their customers’ and b) ‘getting social’. Did they fix the real problem in their business? Not if the phone call I tried to have with them this morning is anything to go by. Of course they don’t need to provide good customer service because they’re a monopoly (single-payer healthcare anyone)?

    The point I’m making is that social/customer insights need to permeate and galvanize the entire organization – and right now they don’t. Companies must shift their mindset to understand that they’re in business to serve their customers. That requires putting the customer (rather than the C-Suite and major shareholders) at the center of the business. Right now the vast majority of companies are still organized in silos and managed (hierarchically) as if the old command and control days were still in full swing.

    I believe that the next 10 years will see companies paying much, much more than lip-service to customer needs, views and opinions. Exceptional, consistent customer service will migrate from the periphery to the core of marketing thinking. Why? Because finally consumers have real power and they will be heard.

  7. I know. Difficult logistics to manage for sure but Dell has been a leader in the new media space so it doesn't surprise me. Glad to hear they were so on it. Smart business, Simon

  8. TThanks, Jezmo. Totally agree that processing what they hear is the problem for brands. The Comcast strategy is short sighted if that's what they're doing. Transparency necessitates substantive change or social will work against you. What brands hear must permeate the organization and that requires very difficult and perhaps costly restructuring. Difficult especially in this economy. But the top down hierarchy is increasingly obstructionist as you say. As customers become more important, organizations will be structured around them. It's a tough transition and will take time. Thanks for your insights. Simon

  9. […] believe that unhappy customers should be heard, and in fact that giving unhappy customers a voice is good for your business. But this is […]

  10. Avatar Leftfield1 says:

    Now, this post is excellent example of good marketing.

  11. Thanks. I think the odd angry customer is a gift to a brand. Hope all is well,