listen. perspective

Don't Fear Angry, Empowered Clients...Embrace Them

Hannah Grove | State Street Corporation

July 19,2017

It used to be that a dissatisfied client could only share complaints with a company in a letter, phone call or email — communications that were generally shielded from public view.

Companies on the receiving end of such complaints could take hours or days to respond, often with little fear of repercussion.

And then came social media.

Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other social platforms allow consumers a plethora of options for interacting with brands, and doing so quite publicly. Researchers at the University of Toronto, for instance, counted some 4 million tweets directed at the seven largest US airlines over a two-year period. The airlines saw more complaints over Twitter in given markets, researchers explained in a paper released this year,1 when their "on-time performance" deteriorated.  Of course, experiencing dissatisfaction with a brand first-hand — whether it's having your flight delayed or being sold a defective product, for instance — isn't the only reason consumers take to social media.  Brands embroiled in major controversies routinely endure barbs from social media users, and such online free-for-alls no doubt give those controversies longer legs than they'd have otherwise.

This trend of public confrontation may make some executives want to stick their heads in the sand, hoping that if they ignore complaints lodged through social channels, such unpleasantries will fade away. Yet, nothing is farther from the truth. As we've seen one too many times, companies that neglect dissatisfied clients today do so at their own peril, succeeding only in further angering critics who, in the instant-gratification digital world, won't hesitate to label a company as unresponsive and worse, undeserving of their patronage. Once such a gulf is created between a business and its customers, it can be very difficult for the company to swim its way back.

Here's the bright side: Today's empowered "activist" clients are good for long as companies make an effort to listen and engage with them. Client feedback, whether it comes through social media or other means, can guide companies to improve their products and services. Perhaps no company has embodied this wisdom better than the pizza chain Domino's. In 2009, the company learned about the power of social media the hard way: When two wayward Domino's employees at a North Carolina-based franchise created a video of themselves doing disgusting things with Domino's sandwiches, the clip garnered millions of views on YouTube and became the talk of Twitter. But what Domino's did in the days that followed would earn the company praise: Domino's posted a video apologizing to customers on YouTube and opened a Twitter account to respond to their concerns.

Companies that neglect dissatisfied customers today do so at their own peril.

Domino's officials also began tackling a problem that had been dogging them even before the video scandal: People just weren't happy with their food. "The brand had great service. It had great value. It was a really good delivery brand, but the quality of food didn't match," said Dennis Maloney, Domino's chief digital officer. So the company gathered feedback from a variety of sources, including focus groups as well as social media chatter, and began making changes in a surprisingly transparent fashion. In an ad campaign, the company revealed real customer critiques, such as "the pizza was cardboard" and pledged to do better, changing their pizza recipe and more.

Domino's later rented an electronic billboard in Times Square that displayed a variety of customer comments, culled from Domino's online ordering system. Though the comments were filtered for profanity, again Domino's didn't shy away from posting negative reviews (along with the positive ones.) "The negative comments are what make it real," said Maloney. "We make millions of deliveries every week...To think there would never be any comments or feedback for a brand where we are custom-making meals for consumers is unrealistic." The company works to minimize the potential for negative customer feedback, he said, "but when it does happen, our job is to make it right." And doing right by their own customers has indeed paid off. Between 2009 and 2017, Domino's share price has surged some 2,000 percent — yes, you read that correctly — from about $9 in April 2009 to more than $180 in April of this year.

Of course, not every brand can expect the same level of engagement as Domino's, especially on social media. B2B firms aren't going to see their (smaller) base of clients tweeting and tagging them in the same way that consumers sometimes inundate large B2C companies on social channels. But that doesn't mean that B2B companies can afford to shrink back in the age of the empowered client. Rather, they should be exploring the best ways to gather feedback from their clients — and then act on it. At State Street, we ask clients to give us feedback in myriad ways including advocacy and loyalty surveys (NPS). The feedback they've given in recent years has prompted us to reorient our sales team so that each salesperson specializes in a specific sector, allowing him or her to have an expert understanding of a client's particular market needs.

Whether you're in the business of delivering pizza or delivering financial services solutions, providing a top-notch customer experience should always be a priority...and that's a goal much easier to achieve when you invest the time and resources necessary to learn what clients actually want, and what they don't. In doing this, you can differentiate yourself from out-of-touch, navel-gazing competitors. You might even win over some of your staunchest critics, transforming their complaints into constructive conversations that inspire key changes, large and small, at your company. It's time to be grateful to empowered clients, whether they're flooding your phone lines or tagging you in 140-character missives. The most valuable feedback is the kind that actually reaches your ears. Better make sure you're listening.

1. Voting with their Tweets: social media complaints can be alternative to market discipline, Rotman study shows. Retrieved July 19, 2017, from


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Hannah Grove | State Street Corporation

Hannah Grove is our chief marketing officer. She focuses on using technology to help us approach the market in new and different ways.  Hannah is currently listening to the Reveal Podcasts and Damien Rice.