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(originally published by Booz & Company)


How Companies Can Respond to Online Complaints

Direct responses to requests, on both consumer- and brand-controlled sites, were generally deemed to be effective. “By responding to NWOM [negative word of mouth] when it is explicitly asked to do so by the customer, a company apparently signals a willingness to engage in conversational communication in a natural way,” the authors write.

But in a context designed for consumers and their conversations — such as an individual’s Twitter account, Facebook page, or blog — a company’s proactive approach was seen as intrusive and inappropriate, which “dehumanizes the nature of its communications,” the researchers say.

Thus, although engaging with disgruntled consumers online can be beneficial, proactive interventions taking place in consumer-controlled mediums are less effective than on company-run sites, the authors caution. “Instead of trying to respond to all NWOM, companies should save their efforts and respond only when the platform is likely to engender positive context effects,” they write.

The authors also suggest that companies take care to strike an appropriate tone. For example, personalizing the interactions can be helpful, by having the spokespeople use their names in online interactions. When companies — in an effort to underscore the seriousness of their commitment to customer service — insist that their representatives use only official titles, they may wind up putting people off.

“As companies’ responses to complaints are now observed by many other consumers than the complainant in the online environment, it is…important for companies to determine [not only] how to respond, but also when to respond,” the authors conclude.

Bottom Line:
At a time when people can quickly spread negative opinions about a brand online, companies can help restore their reputation by interacting via the Web with disgruntled consumers, especially those who explicitly request a response. But preemptively reaching out through platforms intended for consumers and their conversations can be ineffective, making it essential for companies to plan their Internet responses carefully.

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