The Importance of Addressing Criticism From Unhappy Customers

BY: ON TUESDAY, OCTOBER 09, 2012

Whenever I hit “publish” on a blog post, I always take a deep breath. Maybe my mildly melodramatic tendencies are becoming more pronounced, but I find it slightly daunting making my written work available to anyone and everyone with an internet connection. Part of writing is opening oneself up to feedback—of the positive variety, hopefully, but also of the negative kind. I’ve received a handful of critical comments, this one most recently:


Obviously, I responded to this person’s very valid comments; however I struggled with exactly how to address the response. I like to respond to both positive and negative feedback alike, but sometimes crafting a gracious and tactful reply in response to a not-so-gracious comment is difficult.

This difficulty prompted me to start thinking about the ways in which businesses address criticism from unhappy customers. Like writers, all businesses open themselves up to the voice of the public, which is sometimes highly praiseworthy in its commendation and other times impassioned in its criticism. When I receive a negative comment, I read it, absorb it, reply to it, and move on. For businesses, the stakes are high, mainly because of the phenomenon of word-of-mouth marketing, which can work against businesses just as readily as it can work for them.

Customer complaints are intimately linked to customer service, so I wanted to see if customer service experiences play into purchasing behavior. Do businesses that don’t respond to negative feedback politely, tactfully, quickly, or even at all do themselves a disservice by deterring customers? And also, what’s the best method for responding to criticism?

Customer Service, Consumers, and Currency

I came across a survey conducted by American Express that revealed how customer service experiences factor into not only purchasing behavior, but also word-of-mouth recommendations.

  • One out of two respondents (55%) abandoned an intended purchase in the past year because of a poor customer service experience.
  • Americans will tell an average of 15 people about positive experiences – up 67% from 9 last year.
  • Americans will tell an average of 24 people about poor experiences – up 50% from 16 in 2011.

People are more vocal about negative experiences than they are about positive experiences (understandably, as nothing stirs us to words more than frustration and irritation). And clearly, for many of us, customer service has a tangible effect on where and when we choose to spend our money. Businesses who deliver low-quality customer service risk losing a sale and a customer.

The four things that are most likely to cause Americans to switch brands:

  1. Rudeness (an insensitive or unresponsive customer service representative)

  2. Waiting too long to have an issue resolved

  3. Being shuffled around with no resolution of the issue

  4. Forced continually to follow up on an issue

While gathering research, I came across an intriguing finding: people are willing to spend more money at companies that offer good customer service. The general population is willing to spend 13% more at companies that offer good customer service. I would spend more money if a company delivered noteworthy customer service, and I spent some time trying to discern why. Aggravation, anger, annoyance, and disappointment are all human emotions, and I think that when companies deliver good customer service and respond to these emotions, they prove that they care about customers not solely as cash-possessing, credit-card-wielding individuals, but as people who rightfully expect high-quality products. As well, when brands deliver good customer service, they own up to their own mistakes. They display a very human quality that not only justifies an individual customer’s complaints but also makes them appear more personable, congenial, approachable, and receptive. Plus, when businesses don’t resolve/address a customer complaint, disgruntled, discontented customers are floating around amidst potential customers, ready to discuss their gripes and in doing so, dissuade those potential customers from giving a brand business.

Adding Social Media into the Mix

Now, customers are telling more and more people about their experiences. I’m unsure of whether this is due to the increasing relevance of social media sites, but it’s nearly impossible to talk customer service without discussing social media. Sites like Facebook and Twitter transform the way in which brands and consumers interact, mainly because on these sites anyone can be a critic: we can broadcast our gripes, vent about poor experiences, and talk about brand-induced disappointments and disenchantment to our social circle. I know I’ve done it after a Pumpkin-Spice-Latte purchasing experience at Starbucks was less than satisfactory.


Does anyone remember this video of a FedEx delivery man throwing a package that contained a customer’s computer monitor over the gate of the customer’s home? It went viral—it has over 8 million views on YouTube. “United Breaks Guitars,” a song penned when members of a band witnessed United Airlines baggage handlers throwing (and inevitably damaging) their guitars. Months and no compensation later, the band’s singer turned his frustration musical: the music video has 12.5 million YouTube views, proving that there’s nothing like social media for free bad publicity.

I recently went out to dinner at a local restaurant and when the waitress brought the check, she also presented me with a comment card. I started contrasting this more formal, prompted type of customer-evaluation with the utterly informal, impromptu customer evaluations constructed via tweets and Facebook posts. When I fill out a comment card, it passes from my hands, to the hands of my waiter/waitress, to the hands of the restaurant managers and/or owners. It’s a very private affair, an intimate sharing of opinions. Social media discussions of businesses and customer experiences are the antitheses of this: there’s nothing more public.

And consumers have high expectations when they voice a complaint through a social media channel: 42% of consumers who contact a brand, product, or company on social media expect a response within 60 minutes, though virtually no companies deliver on this.

Now, this expectation might not pose a problem for big brands like Starbucks or Dell, which can employ people to monitor social media conversations around the clock and reply instantly; however, small businesses simply can’t do this. But, I don’t necessarily think this statistic regarding consumer expectations needs to be disheartening. I think the key is simply responding (within a reasonable time period, of course), and even companies who don’t respond within 60 minutes can still offer good customer service. I scoured Facebook and Twitter in an attempt to find some examples of brands delivering solid customer service through social media. These brands demonstrate how to go about addressing customer complaints the right way, and the tactics they use can extend beyond social media.

Exemplars of Good Customer Service


This is a great example of spinning a negative into a positive: Rent The Runway, a designer-dress rental service, received a complaint from a disappointed customer, and by responding in an attentive, helpful way, was able to change the customer’s feelings towards the brand. They reaffirm their commitment to providing customers with the best possible experience, and this claim isn’t composed of merely empty words, as revealed by the follow-up post by the customer.


The clothing store Anthropologie apologizes, gives this customer direct and simple instructions, and promises a rapid resolution.


Jack Rogers takes the onus off this specific customer by promising that a customer service rep will contact her as opposed to the other way around.


Nordstrom has over one million Facebook fans, but each customer complaint posted on their Facebook wall receives a reply (something especially commendable given that 70% of questions from Facebook fans are ignored, and 25% of global companies close their Facebook wall to fans). Nordstrom addresses this complaint politely and graciously, and again, gives the customer specific directions and promises a resolution.

Zappos is a paragon of good customer service (arguably the best out of all businesses in existence), and the company’s Twitter background testifies to this. The background provides customers with a directory of sorts: phone numbers and emails they can use to get in contact with a department and have their questions answered. Zappos takes the work out of things for its customers: people don’t have to go hunting for contact information on the website.

The Flip Side: Positive Feedback

Addressing negative feedback is obviously a must, but responding to positive feedback is important, too. While perusing brand pages on Facebook, I noticed that many businesses (Pepsi, Zappos) reply back to positive, praiseworthy posts with gratitude and appreciation.

And speaking of positive feedback, I opened my inbox this morning to this lovely comment on one of my blog posts:

About the Author

Olivia Roat

Olivia Roat is a 24-year-old with an interest in all things writing, marketing, and social media. She currently works as an inbound marketer at Mainstreethost, a digital marketing agency in Buffalo, NY.

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