Complaints no longer a Customer Service Issue but a Reputation Issue

In the not so distant past, complaints were regarded as a customer service issue and the responsibility of the Customer Service department to solve.

But no longer.

Social Media such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook and mobile phones have changed the potential impact of a negative experience into one that could potentially be harmful to not just a brand, but also the reputation of the organisation. It is now a Reputation Manager issue.

Let’s look at how the process of complaining have evolved.

A Complaint normally arises when there is an imbalance between a customer’s expectations and reality. Karl-Sven Erikson called this the Moment of Truth experience. The time when a brand and its values become real to the customer.

So this is how a customer would have complained:

1. Customer complains to Company (by telephone, face to face or by letter)

2. Company responds to Customer (typically by letter, e-mail or SMS)

3. If the complaint is ignored, he or she would write again or write to one of the complaint sections in the local newspaper, where their story might be published (Examples – The Star and Beeld newspapers)

4. Some would write and get their story mentioned on websites like

5. Based on how the complaint is dealt with, the Customer is either delighted (and may then tell their friends and colleagues in person) or dissatisfied (and will also tell their friends and colleague, but this time a very different story)

With social media, the traditional complaint pattern has been disrupted quite severely. Rather than a private exchange between Customer and Company, the first few steps are public from the very beginning.

j0423020 From the minute the customer wants to complain their thoughts, experiences and attitudes (whether justified or not) are public knowledge. Complaining on a social network or via Twitter on a mobile phone, now changes the complaint from a rather private and contained experience to a public and widespread affair.

Years ago the experts cited figures that one dissatisfied person could affect 6 people, then the ratio increased to 20 and now I read somewhere the actuaries worked it out that one dissatisfied customer could affect at least 81 others. This on top of the story that we are only a sixth removed away from each other. Today people have the tools with which to damage, if they chose to do so – see my article, The Tools exist to do Damage (

As you can see, it is no longer about responding to a single complaint, but to how to manage an attack that can damage brand reputation. It is now bigger than just a customer service issue.

Blogs, and social media more generally, are a great way for people to distribute their dissatisfaction and thoughts about their experiences. They can get it seen by a large number of people who can link to it, comment on it and reproduce it on their own sites.  Very quickly a company has a story that is no longer private and is also no longer contained. Other people have linked to or reproduced the complaint on their own sites and forums. Some publicly and others in places that even companies cannot see.

The ripple effect can be dangerous.

How does a company know who might be reading the negative story? How do they know how many other people might react negatively?

So, how should a company protect itself.

1. Educate your staff about the danger of negative complaints and its impact not just on the brand but on the reputation of the institution. Show them the influence circle, so that they will clearly understand that every single complaint is serious.

2. Improve your monitoring of negative messaging. Ensure that you have good web and traditional media monitoring processes in place. Make sure that you encourage internal communication about delays, potential problems, snags and behavior, so that potential complaints can be minimised.

3. Develop a policy and procedure for responding to complaints – face to face, written and social media. Here is a very good article that was written about the subject, which includes a great process diagram developed by the US Air Force – that might help you.

It is essential that your company develop a response procedure that embodies transparency principles, caring principles, the values of the organisation and social media practices.

4. Create avenues for customers to communicate their thoughts and experiences DIRECTLY to the company and ensure that you listen and respond appropriately. Recently President Jacob Zuma had a hotline installed into his office to deal with issues of negative service delivery. He has nearly a hundred staff members attending to the volume. A Bold step, criticised by many, but definitely a step in the right direction.

One of the biggest lessons in Crisis Management can be used here. Bad things happen to good companies. Organisations make mistakes, BUT IT IS HOW we respond and DEAL WITH THE ISSUE that often can make the real difference.

This difference needs to be carefully defined and implemented.