Am I being unreasonable?! Dealing with difficult customers in the digital age

Now that consumers have a plethora of platforms via which to complain about poor customer service, Suzy Bashford asks how brands can turn negative into positive.

Am I being unreasonable?! Dealing with difficult customers in the digital age

One angry mum, in the run-up to Christmas, posed the following question on Mumsnet: 'Am I being unreasonable to think the new Asda advert is the biggest pile of sexist crap in a long time?' Her words hit a nerve and the thread went on to receive 1000 responses. Most agreed with her, the level of fury rising as the debate progressed, with many describing the ad as 'misogynistic'. One even compared it to the Ku Klux Klan.

However, most respondents also admitted that they rarely, if ever, shopped at Asda. In fact, one declared that 'the thought of buying a turkey from Asda makes me dry-retch'. This begs the question, how much attention should a brand pay to this kind of online outcry, when it is mostly generated by consumers who are not, and have no plans to become, its customers?

Founder and chief executive of Mumsnet, Justine Roberts (below, right), believes that - customers or not - it is crucial to respond quickly and be 'in listening mode'. 'While I take the point that the loudest agitators aren't necessarily reflecting a broader view, the way you are seen to deal with criticism is judged by a broad audience,' she says. 'Even if you are not getting anywhere with a particularly unreasonable complainant, you're seen to be responding and receptive. That will get you brownie points.'

Mumsnet's research has found that there are 20 'lurkers' (members who don't post comments themselves, but observe from the sidelines) to every one person who makes a comment. It has also shown that, although the mothers involved in this particular discussion about Asda said they didn't generally shop there, a third of 'Mumsnetters' do. 'So it's often the silent majority you need to talk to when you respond,' adds Roberts.

Siobhan Freegard, founder of Netmums, disagrees, reflecting the views of a growing band of marketers who believe that brands shouldn't pander to unreasonable consumers. On Netmums, the Asda ad was well-received and voted second-favourite Christmas campaign after John Lewis' 'Snowman' spot.

'While 1000 festive Scrooges may have moaned about the Asda ad on Mumsnet, 18m people a week happily shop in the chain and couldn't care less what those miserable mums think,' says Freegard.

'The challenge for retailers isn't simply to reply to every tweet and post, but to work out what activity on social media really means for them and how to react accordingly.'

Bow to pressure

Unlike Roberts, Freegard says that if the vocal minority are not customers, then brands shouldn't bow to pressure to respond quickly and fully. 'Companies used to shake with nerves and cave in to every online demand, but this is changing,' she contends. 'The savviest firms have realised that in cyberspace it's often the emptiest vessels that make the most noise.'

Virgin Media Business' customer service director, Phil Stewart, differs from Freegard on response strategy. 'Any noise, whether positive or negative, from customers or not, has to be acknowledged and brands have to take part in the debate,' he says. However, he does agree with her that social media is losing its novelty factor.

'In the early days of Twitter, if we got a tweet, we'd jump on it immediately announcing to the office that "we have a tweet",' he adds. 'Now we treat it in the same way as a fax, letter or call. Someone tweeting us won't get a faster response. The key is consistency.'

Consistency is one of the most challenging areas for brands. Typically, brands are divided into departments and this can be problematic when dealing with the more demanding modern customer across multiple channels. They don't care if your business is siloed: they expect you to have their 'contact' history at your fingertips.

If you don't, they are bound to feel dissatisfied. This is borne out by research released by the Institute of Customer Service (ICS) in December, which shows 'staff attitude and competence' is the number one cause for complaints in the UK. According to ICS chief executive Jo Causon, customers particularly loathe being 'passed from pillar to post' when their query is being handled.

Quality over quantity

Some companies are gearing up for the new order by matching certain agents to specific media, while others are training staff to handle all channels. Many are rethinking the way they evaluate agents, too.

'It's no longer "well done, you closed in four minutes",' says Stewart. 'We now measure how happy the customer is at the end of the interaction. We still measure time, but it's much more about quality than quantity now.'

Another major trend that brands are aiming to accommodate is the customer desire to 'co-create' and have a say in a brand's development. According to the ICS, consumers want to be involved far more than is currently possible.

Stephen Ingledew, managing director, customer and marketing, Standard Life, and a speaker at Marketing's upcoming Customer Experience Management Conference on 20 March, concedes that the financial-services industry 'is way behind customer thinking and needs to do a lot to catch up'. However, Standard Life has shifted its focus, recognising how important customer interactions are and how they are changing.

'For us, it is no longer about "customers at the heart of the business", but more about "customers driving and creating our business". Traditional approaches alone will not meet customer demand for better engagement,' says Ingledew.

One company that has embraced the changes is Procter & Gamble. Over the past year, more than 220,000 UK or Irish customers have called or emailed the company with questions. These have ranged from the best way to get grass stains out of football kit to recommendations about Eukanuba food for an 11-year-old Labrador with sensitive skin.

According to P&G global consumer relations director Alison Smith, the 'real opportunity' that 'people power' presents is close connections.

'You have to remember that consumers hold the power,' she says. 'They choose to come to your page or follow your Twitter account; they choose to email you with a question or complaint. How you deal with this, or reward them for that contact, is the true test of customer service today. The potential rewards for getting it right are significant and long-lasting. The potential consequences of getting it wrong are severe.'


If you think that customer-service departments and carelines are simply nice, fluffy 'extras', think again. They are becoming the engine of a business and need to be treated with respect and attention. The sector is undergoing a revolution and social media is at its heart.

'With the rise of social media and multiple channels to contact companies, the balance of power has shifted,' says Institute of Customer Service (ICS) chief executive Jo Causon. 'We as consumers have far more power than ever and are much more likely to exert that power.'

There is the emergence, too, of consumer watchdog sites such as Pugbear (www.pugbear.co). This pledges to 'empower the ordinary user through social media' by scoring companies on how well they handle service issues.

Research by the ICS predicts that this trend will continue: customers will become more demanding, less tolerant and quicker to reject organisations that do not meet their needs. Consequently, the ICS is urging its members to ensure they invest more time and money in training and recruit 'more emotionally intelligent' customer-service agents.

'A "computer-says-no" attitude is unacceptable,' says Causon. 'We are dealing with human beings. We want to be treated like a human being. We need to empower our people to make the right judgement calls.'


It's the stuff of marketing dreams and nightmares. In the age of social media, a brand's fortune can rise and fall in minutes...

Five success stories

  1. O2's very human Twitter feed has managed to turn shocking abuse into chuckles among followers by posting humorous responses to angry tweets.
  2. XboxSupport is widely acknowledged as a leader in the social-media field and won the Guinness World Record for most-responsive brand on Twitter.
  3. Sainsbury's had a PR boost when it changed the name of one of its breads from 'Tiger' to 'Giraffe' following a letter from a three-year-old girl.
  4. Marks & Spencer picked a four-year-old boy with Down's Syndrome (right) to model in its Christmas catalogue and ads after his mother posted a message on its Facebook page. She wrote that he could make the brand's advertising 'original, bold and memorable' in a way that would 'fit perfectly with M&S' family values and inclusive ethics'.
  5. When a seven-year-old boy wrote to Lego lamenting the loss of a character from his Ninjago set, the company garnered media approval following its response: it said, having spoken to a 'master from the Ninjago line', it would send a replacement as well as a baddie for the boy to fight, too.

Five that got it wrong

  1. Starbucks put up a screen at the Natural History Museum inviting tweets to #spreadthecheer. Instead, it was flooded by angry messages about tax avoidance.
  2. A man named Thomas Cook asked Thomas Cook whether he could have a weekend in Paris for all the jokes about his name that he had endured. Thomas Cook ignored the jokey request. Rival LowCostHolidays.com didn't, and flew him to Paris.
  3. HMRC launched an ad campaign on Twitter urging consumers to file their tax returns early for '#innerpeace'. The Twitterati thought its account had been hacked.
  4. NatWest's Twitter account dealt badly with its IT collapse last June and was criticised heavily for poor response levels and an inconsistent message.
  5. When McDonald's asked for input to its #McDStories, it received a deluge of tales complaining about the service and food at its restaurants.

Customer Experience Management

Maximising customer value and driving revenue for your brand from first contact to post-purchase service

20 March 2013, Victoria, London

To register, visit www.customerexperienceconf.com