Do Customers Hate Your Customer Experience…Or, Do They Just Hate You?
Wednesday, 22 August 2018
By now, the notion that social media can instantaneously broadcast the sentiment of one disgruntled customer to an audience of millions has become an unavoidable reality for customer management professionals, who can respond by either monitoring discussion and offering an appropriate response, actually improving the customer experience or, ideally, both.
But when approaching customer dialogue on social media, an assumption is too often made that the sentiment will be driven by actual experiences with the brand’s product and/or accompanying customer service. Even though humans are known for letting rationality succumb to passion, so many within customer management mistakenly cling to the notion that at least a semblance of objectivity will sit at the heart of social discussion: those with good experiences will share praise, while those with bad experiences will share condemnation.
As it turns out, customer discourse often becomes an animal in and of itself. When an issue between a brand and a customer goes viral, customers will thus take sides not simply based on the actual experience in question or their own interactions with the brand but based on their desire to align with either the complaining customer or the defensive brand.
And you thought popularity contests were a distant memory of high school cafeterias…
Atlanta restaurant Boners BBQ recently found itself caught in the middle of this more-accurate version of social customer reality. And though the storm of customer discourse has since calmed, the memory of the restaurant’s interaction with a single customer is unlikely to be forgotten by many other existing and potential patrons.
It all began when the restaurant used its Facebook account to call out “Stephanie S,” who it alleges failed to leave a tip after her meal. “NOT WANTED! (Stephanie S.) left waitress 0.00 tip on a $40 tab after she received a Scoutmob discount. If you see this woman in your restaurant tell her to go outside and play hide and go fuck yourself! Yelp that bitch,” read the post, which included a picture of the patron in question.
Stephanie, who had written a very negative (though not particularly “hostile”) Yelp review of the restaurant and its food the day prior to the Facebook call-out, claimed afterwards to the Huffington Post that she did tip. According to her account, she indeed left just $40…but the actual bill was for $30 (in future posts on the issue, Boners BBQ ownership maintains that no tip was received).
At this point, many CMIQ readers are likely appalled by the mere idea that a business would curse out a customer on a public social media page, especially if such a harsh response came in response to a fair-game review posted on Yelp. And, sure enough, there was a surge of negative Boners sentiment simply related to the fact that it publicly insulted a customer.
But the response was not all negative. Some customers, loyal to the brand and/or its employees, were going to naturally stand behind Boners in a war with a customer. Of further relevance is the fact that this particular customer allegedly did not tip, which is one of the cardinal sins of patronage. Many Americans have worked in a hospitality role and can relate to the frustration of not receiving gratuity. And those who have not still, very likely, feel they are not always properly appreciated for their hard work. In many cases of non-tipping (especially when the food came at a discount), it is thus far easier to sympathize with the waiter than the customer.
So, while the restaurant should have known that publicly-insulting a customer is not a game a business should play, it likely thought it was playing with a loaded deck.
A key takeaway is that a significant portion of Boners’ supporters and detractors are not reconciling their public, social opinions with their own experiences at the restaurant (if such experiences even exist). They are not even basing such opinions on another’s actual experience with the restaurant. Their opinions are being formulated based on who they would prefer to support in the fallout of a brand’s isolated follow-up to an isolated interaction with a single customer. Such a game is as much about likability as it is actual customer service.
Of particular consequence is the fact that the “I’ve never been there, this didn’t involve me, but I’m commenting anyway (or, even if I’ve been there, my experience is not the basis of this review)” sentiment took over Yelp, a resource many tech-savvy individuals take to heart when planning restaurant trips. Though many such reviews have ultimately been censored, there was a period when Boners BBQ’s Yelp page was flooded with overwhelmingly-negative and overwhelmingly-positive reviews from people who admittedly were not driven to comment based on the quality of the restaurant itself. Instead, they were voicing their opinion on a social media controversy—and providing star ratings that could influence willingness to visit the restaurant in the process.
Though Boners started to apologize in the wake of the fallout, it hesitated to fully give in, noting that while its reaction on Facebook was inexcusable, so too was Stephanie S’s decision not to tip. As a result, the controversy continued. It seems to have slowed following a full-blown apology from the company, but now Boner’s BBQ gets to forever join the list of infamous “social media firestorms.”
We generally think of “popularity contests” in a negative light. And no matter which side one supports in the Boners BBQ debate, a natural reaction is fear over the idea that the likability of one’s tone on social media can totally transform a brand’s reputation with customers without any concern for the quality of that brand’s goods or services.
Fear, however, should not be the only takeaway. As it turns out, and as Boners BBQ itself has even witnessed, some customers can overlook blunders—and even defend them—if they believe in the product, the customer service and the brand behind it all. There is an upside to this “popularity contest” culture!
As businesses navigate customer management in a world governed by the voice of the customer, here are some simple concepts to value:
The “customer experience” is no longer just about the experience: In today’s world of customer management, you are always on the clock. Every interaction—from the actual delivery of the service, to call center complaint-handling, to television advertising messages to drunken late-night Tweets—contributes to customer sentiment regarding your business. The margin of error for “humanity” is very small.
Make every experience count: Realistically, Boners BBQ should have refrained from publicly-targeting a customer on its Facebook page, regardless of what she tipped. But if it were going to make the mistake of doing so, think how much more compelling its argument would have been if there was a consensus that the food—and the waitstaff—was exemplary. For as much as people can relate to the frustration of not getting tipped, they can also relate to the frustration of bad service. If a company goes out of its way to create a world-class experience for the customer, it will leverage the power of the people to help marginalize isolated instances of frustration.
Customers must want you to succeed: Whether they believe the proprietor is a good guy, support the same charitable and political causes or simply like the idea of the business, customers should feel passionate about helping the brand reach its goals. If they actually want to support your business and feel invested in its success, they will help nip social media outrage in the bud. If they’re indifferent or oppositional to your business’ success, it will be harder and harder to go toe-to-toe with the “underdog” customer.
Be the bigger man: Everyone in customer management has a “customer horror story”—a tale of a rude, disrespectful customer who made life Hell for himself or one of his reps. Often, there is nothing the customer management professional would like more than to “burn” this person in a public forum. Unfortunately, old adages like “being the bigger man” and “you catch more flies with honey” ring as true as can be in the world of customer management. Some customers will support you regardless, but those who do not would be more inclined to do so if your message was sweet and positive.
If, instead of calling out Stephanie S for her non-tipping, Boners instead skipped right to the apology and created the chance to earn her approval, it would have better displayed its customer-centricity and willingness to improve--two must-have qualities for success in the world of customer management.