On being the squeaky wheel

If you like it, tell all your friends. If you don’t, just tell us!” It’s a cheesy commonplace and we’ve all seen it on signs. But if you’re interested in the relationship between customers and businesses, it’s worth looking at again.

If you like it, tell all your friends” acknowledges that word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool. “If you don’t, just tell us!” is the other side of the coin: an acknowledgement that if customers tell their friends about a bad experience with a business, that has the power to hurt the business.

But there’s also a promise implicit in that second part:

If you don’t like it, just tell us and we will try to do something about it.

Otherwise, the copy might as well just say “If you don’t like it, shut up.

It’s an unspoken contract: if I, as the customer, contact you about my dissatisfaction, you as the business will listen to me and try to help. I get my issue resolved, you get continued custom and avoid any bad publicity.

It’s estimated that 95% of customers who have a complaint successfully resolved will remain customers. Other relevant but equally unverified stats: only about 4% of dissatisfied customers bother complaining to the business in the first place, but they’ll tell ten friends each (or 20 friends in some versions of the story). I first heard these statistics when I was being trained as a waitress in 1996, so even if they were accurate then, they’re probably not now. I’ve certainly never seen any actual studies to substantiate those figures. But I accept the general principle they’re quoted to support.

So what does this mean? It means that the people who bother to complain to you directly about a problem are probably a tiny minority of the people who’ve experienced similar problems. It means that unlike the others, the complainers are prepared to put in some effort to get the problem resolved – and they have faith, or at least hope, that you’ll do so. Meanwhile, the non-complainers will be probably be badmouthing you to their friends. So the complainer is your early warning system, your way of managing problems that you’d otherwise be unaware of and therefore powerless to solve. And you don’t even have to pay them. On the contrary, if you resolve the problem, they’ll be happy to go on paying you.

But it all breaks down when a business chooses not to use this free early warning system, perhaps on the grounds that to listen would cost resources. It breaks down when businesses force complainers to use webforms, when they send out emails with “Do not reply to this email” written at the bottom, when they send generic replies to specific complaints or demand specifics in response to general complaints.

Some organisations seem to have calculated that if only 4% of dissatisfied customers complain, only a fraction of a percentage will bother complaining twice. Simply ignore the first complaint, or respond to it with another hoop to jump through, and hey presto! The complaint disappears.

Except it doesn’t, of course. And now, in the age of social media, it’s easier than ever for customers to break our side of the bargain too. When Heather Armstrong’s washing machine broke down and the company ignored her increasingly desperate phonecalls, she told a million people on Twitter. When United Airlines broke Dave Carroll’s guitar and stonewalled his requests for compensation, he wrote a song which went viral. These are famous examples, but on a smaller scale it happens every day.

What’s surprising is how hard we do try to keep our side of the bargain, how much faith we do retain in conventional channels of complaint, even when it’s clear that they’re not working.

You might have read my account of dealing with BT when getting the phone line sorted for my current house. The blog post was long enough already, or I would have mentioned all the hours I spent pressing buttons in their confusing automated phone system or waiting on hold. The only amusing thing about the whole awful saga was how quickly BT responded when I complained about their poor service on Twitter. Every mention of BT’s name earned me a reply from the irritating @BTCare team. I kept responding that I wanted them to answer the phone, not chat to me on Twitter, but of course that wasn’t the point; the @BTCare team wanted to shut me up, not help me. If I’m stuck on hold for 30 minutes, that’s my problem; but if I tell my Twitter followers about it, that’s @BTCare’s problem.

I call it Twitterwashing, this tactic where an organisation is lacklustre about direct communication but jumps in to stop people criticising it on Twitter (and other social media). If businesses continue to take this approach, customers will work out that badmouthing the business publicly is the best way to ensure its speedy attention. Twitterwashing encourages the exact behaviour it is designed to prevent.