The New World of Customer Interaction

For decades businesses sought valiantly to increase communications with their customers. Many techniques and technologies were developed and implemented to solicit and evaluate the responses of prospects and customers. However, the process was largely one-sided as companies called, mailed and advertised their view of what the customer wanted. Today, however, many of those same companies are overwhelmed as the Internet and social media gives the public and customers an efficient and popular way to share their views about everything. The ability to communicate so frequently and in such numbers has many companies wondering how to most effectively respond to this new environment. With interactivity now on steroids the concept of “word of mouth” has taken on a totally new meaning. Whereas an individual might have previously verbally shared an opinion with a few friends and associates, it usually stopped there. It was the rarest of occasions when any such comments went “viral.” In the social media world of 2013, it only takes a simple click to get the word out to hundreds or thousands. Obtaining buzz and having that viral effect where a friend tells a friend who tells a friend ad infinitum actually becomes a marketing objective. Progressive companies now monitor, analyse and respond to these communications in a way never before contemplated.

Taking the Good with the Bad

This new world of feedback, reviews and responses has created an entire industry that is rapidly evolving to filter and utilise the millions of daily data points from consumers. Today we see:

  • Companies modifying websites to allow both public and private interactions with customers concerning their products and services. Examples of this approach include Voices.com and QuickBooks.
  • Companies allowing customers to provide feedback on specific products or experiences for prospective users to consider before making a decision. Websites such as Amazon and Hotels.com make heavy use of such feedback and even provide ratings systems such as those that use a one-to-five stars concept.
  • Many third-party sites that exist only to collect reviews and ratings. Initiatives such as Yelp and Urbanspoon seek to encourage, collect and publish those local reviews and comments.

Of course, these vehicles receive both good and bad inputs from customers. Some consumers now practically consider it their duty to fellow consumers to write such a review on every purchasing experience from shoes to restaurants to hotels. The importance of these sources of information continues to grow. According to Interconnected World, 61 percent of global Internet users research products online. Other sources indicate that 80 percent of customers under the age of 40 rely heavily on reviews and comments made online, with 32 percent relying primarily on social media. According to Marketing Land, over 90 percent of customers say that online reviews affect their buying decisions. Literally dozens of other studies and surveys support these conclusions that point to a new marketing dimension for the classic sales funnel. One interesting reality is that recent studies show that a company's most critical comments may come from their best customers. An ABC report on the study “Reviews: The Influential Tail” points out that the objective may actually lie in a loyal customer’s desire to protect a beloved brand or product. One effect of this increase of the acceptance of and reliance on reviews and online feedback could have been anticipated. There are constant efforts by companies to inflate their positive ratings with false positive reviews, and manipulation by unscrupulous competitors to seed negative comments and reviews. While the net effect of these efforts is not yet fully understood, many consumers are now savvy enough to sniff out a lot of the artificial material. Also, many sites are implementing procedures to limit reviews to actual, verified customers.

So They’re Talking: Do We Respond and How?

This evolution in online feedback, and the role of social media especially, has evolved so quickly that both industry analysts and companies are grappling with the issue of how to assess and deal with its impact. The first hurdle is to create awareness of this new dynamic and make it a priority to address the environment it creates. A number of questions are generated, such as:

  • Which channels are the most important sources of feedback?
  • Should we monitor these channels? How do we prioritize them?
  • If we do get feedback, how do we respond to and use such information?
  • How can we be proactive and get on top of this issue rather than merely being reactive?

While these and other questions raise valid points, the difficulty is that there are no simple and clear cut answers. Advice and guidance is often directly contradictory. For example, some online gurus say a company must respond to negative reviews and comments. Others say maybe respond but only in some cases and on certain sites. There are even those who advise avoid doing anything because a response will raise online visibility and search rankings of the negative source.

Some Basic Pointers

While acknowledging that there are conflicting viewpoints, there is general consensus on a few of the major points dealing with responses to both good and bad online feedback. Much of the decision on an appropriate course of action depends upon where the feedback originates. Items on corporate websites, third-party sites and social media channels may require different tactics. Nonetheless, here are a few of the current guidelines many follow:

  • Allow both public and private feedback on corporate websites. Make it easy to use and monitor the comments 24/7 if possible. Respond to all communications as promptly as possible, aiming for the same day. These communications put a face on the anonymous corporation a personality should be cultivated while being objective and professional. Respond both privately and personally as appropriate.
  • For third-party sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor a company sometimes has an opportunity to respond to the comments and reviews. Beyond responding, monitor the more visible sites to gain insights to areas that can be improved upon.
  • Social media channels present their own challenges. Depending on a company’s size it may be prudent to assign specific personnel to constantly track the major platforms and have plans for dealing with any negative situations that might become buzz or trending issues.

While the best strategies and tactics for dealing with online feedback are evolving, there are two fundamental perspectives to maintain:

  • First, use the good feedback. It is entirely ethical to encourage and incentivize actual customers to put their positive thoughts online. Use the testimonials and excerpts in multiple creative ways – there are a number of sources that now offer advice on how to do this effectively.
  • Secondly, accept negative feedback as a reality. Deal with it depending on the type and channel. People understand that some customers just enjoy complaining and others have legitimate beefs. If they see a company dealing with both in a professional and responsive manner, it has a shot at winning over both the complainer and the observer.

Be brave in this new world and you will find online feedback to be a powerful tool.