Sunday, 19 February 2012



Oh no! Here comes that miserable, whining customer again. The one that makes you inwardly grit your teeth and roll your eyes heavenward. But far from a being a total pain in the butt, he or she could be your best marketing tool yet.

It’s not necessarily the customer who’s always delighted with your service who is going to be the one to award you that most coveted of advertising properties; positive word-of-mouth. It may well be the one with the sour face and petty complaints. The perpetually satisfied customer has probably reached the point of taking you for granted, meaning that the good word-of-mouth they spread about you has already had its effect. People don’t endlessly go on repeating the same story, unless they are given a new reason to. More importantly, as big business has increasingly discovered, there is nothing quite as powerful as the hand-on-heart “we know we’ve let you down which is why we promise to do better” approach.

McDonalds recently ran an intriguing ad campaign admitting “Our coffee’s been keeping us awake at night. Frankly, it hasn’t been up to scratch.” For we coffee addicts, this admission packed the punch of a double ristretto at 6am. We sat up and took notice. Here was a multi-national spending their ad budget not boasting about their product, but telling us their coffee is – or was - crap. According to Sydney-based Strategic Planner Darrell Tiemans, There is wide-ranging research that shows consumers' feelings towards a branded service are higher if the brand addresses a complaint or fault well compared to having a perfect track record.” This strategy of converting your harshest critics is increasingly finding favour with big business. In 2009, Dominoes Pizza in America launched “Pizza Turnaround” - a massive confessional ad campaign where they showed genuine, disgruntled customers voicing specific complaints (“the crust is rubbery”, “it tastes like cardboard,”) before going back to those same customers with a new product. Brave? Yes. Foolhardy? No. The campaign was a huge success.

For small business, the opportunity exists almost daily to convert dissatisfied customers. Rather than trying to get them out the door as quickly as possible, the smart small business person should capitalize on the good-will word-of-mouth (and social online comment) that can be generated by very specifically addressing their concern; particularly if they do so with humour or imagination and make a good story out of it. What must be generated by any remedy is a sense not that the customer has “done well” out of the deal (“here, have a free wotsit and sod off”), but that the brand genuinely appreciates their custom. (“Next time you’re popping in, let us know so we can reserve you a free so-and-so.”) If you can make them laugh, you know you’ve nailed it.


1.     Rather than simply fixing a problem, try and use a little imagination, humour or thoughtfulness in resolving it that shows you understand both the specific complaint and the individual’s needs.
2.     Give them something to talk about. People love telling stories, so make your service, product or brand the centre of that days yarn.
3.     Once you have won a previously disgruntled customer over, lightly say something along the lines of “don’t forget to tell your friends” or “if you get a moment, would you mind mentioning that on our facebook page.” Showing that you value their good will is no bad thing.
4.     Find reasons to show that you listen: advertise a new product or service based on a specific customer request or complaint. ie “Following recommendations from Mums, we are now stocking ABC instead of XYZ.”


5.     Don’t blame the critic, or their lack of taste, for the problem.  Telling a customer that they aren’t worthy of your business these days can generate an unimaginable volume of negative word-of-mouth. Just ask GASP! Stores in Melbourne.
6.     Don’t be afraid to let other customers see you listening to, apologizing for, or addressing another customer’s complaints. Those third-party eyes will also generate positive word-of-mouth.

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