When Customers Attack, They're Not Doing It Online

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Only 7% of customers who had a problem while conducting an online transaction shared their experience on a Blog or online social network.

Admit it, you thought it would be higher.

According to a study conducted by Harris Interactive for Tealeaf Technology in August 200 called, 2008 Online Transactions, it turns out that people complain a lot more in person (74%) or while on the phone with family and friends (50%) compared to leaving a rating or review on a Website (16%), an online message board (8%) or a Blog or online social network (7% – which also happens to be the lowest ranked).

This falls in line with a stat that Brett Hurt from Bazaarvoice shared with Six Pixels of Separation a ways back: out of the over ten billion peer reviews that Bazaarvoice has served, the average rating is 4.5/5.

All in all, it’s still a little surprising how low these numbers seem. One of the bigger chants for Social Media revolves around a brands ability to listen to the conversation (and, how everybody is in on the conversation). While it’s never good if 7% of your consumer base is complaining on Blogs and in online social networks, it’s still not a huge percentage. Granted, the long tail of content is not great for a brand either. If someone complains in person, that complaint might get forwarded around via word of mouth, but has little impact when compared to a serious high ranking in the search results of your favourite search engines (as is the case when someone Blogs about it).

Putting it in writing and online gives the complaint a permanent digital legacy (one that has an ongoing conversation around it).

So, while the percentage may be significantly lower than telling someone in person, the effects of the online complaint probably have a much more dire long-term and overall negative brand effect.

People complain when they feel like their issue has not been resolved or when they are not being understood by the brand. Enabling and empowering them to review and rate products and services provides a more transparent platform for people to be heard… and they like it. On the other hand, it provides an amazing feedback process for the brand. Nothing will whip a brand into shape faster than negative feedback (hopefully).

The challenge is that this all so very new and the percentage of use from above demonstrates that. It doesn’t mean it’s not serious. It doesn’t mean to ignore it. It just means that it’s a new channel and overall usage will likely increase as the months and years roll on.

Now it’s your turn: do you take your sour grapes online?

You can read the full news item about the 2008 Online Transaction survey via eMarketer here: Web Shoppers Gripe the Old-Fashioned Way.


  1. I did work for a company few years ago who actually had to change its brand name because of the sour reputation they had on forums. Whether or not it was deserved, anytime one would Google their name, a whole lot of negatives would pop out. They tried to reverse the movement without any success at all. Internet messages are very “sticky” and Google does not always give more credential to new information – oftentimes it is the opposite: old and well read posts come up first. For them it was devastating.
    I would be very curious to see stats about praise for a brand or a product online. It’s probably much higher. People like to say good things about people and stuff.
    Here is an example of public praise: thank you Mitch for your Tweets. I am a new follower at your @mitchjoel Twitter account and I definitely get a lot of value from your posts.
    Ha! That feels much better than complaining about something!

  2. Hey Mitch, loving the increased conversation around the blog – the book-writing is working wonders for you, right?!
    In our experience, my wife & I have done more to raise our concerns when purchasing online (like when Amazon shipped the wrong thing) or choosing to service online (like the lunacy of a utilities provider who didn’t let you choose a *green* energy package & service it online…).
    Interestingly, we didn’t stop using Amazon, but we DID switch energy supplier.
    I think inertia from the perceived hassle of getting through to a real person holds us back from phoning – I’d rather make my points in a clear way that can (only?) be read by a real person so I know the company will actually listen.
    The only time in the past two years I have written to share my opinion was with our new bank – and it was on their Customer Satisfaction Questionnaire. I asked them to stop sending so much paper (they’d sent easily 150 sheets in the course of the set-up process!).
    Does that seem typical to you?

  3. Interesting, but I don’t think this is a surprise when you consider that generally customers won’t complain.. they will just leave and tell other people. Social Media is still fairly new, people with a grievance may not necessarily be themselves socially networked. They may also only complain online when pushed to the limit or when given a place to do so by the company. How many companies have this forum? They may also feel that a direct call (if they can navigate IVR hell is more immediate.
    However if you have a look at this article and check the Globe and Mail link you will see that, given a reason/trigger many complaints will surface on a variety of forums
    Also have a look at http://www.thesqueakywheel.com
    And marketers who type in their Company name+ customer service or “customer service sucks” might be unpleasantly surprised. Particualy if they are a telco, an airline, a utility, a bank or a home renovator.
    7% may not seem very high in the big scheme of things. But even 1% can damage a brand if you count the viral nature of social media. And that’s why companies need to be monitoring what people are saying about them… they can via social media. Smart companies will already be doing this.
    Do I complain online… yes I do, if there is a forum though e if someone has already started the conversation. I tend to phone first. And when I research online I look to see what ordinary folks are saying about their experience… too many negative reviews and I move on.

  4. I tend to make any complaints in forums provided by companies (esp. feedback/support forums) or will email them to a company if no forum. In particular, if I have a bad ticket purchasing/concert going experience for a band I love–and likely have paid for a fan club membership–I tend to be extremely disappointed and will turn to existing fan forums to talk about what disappointed me, whether others experienced the same. That is usually purely from emotional need than strategic.
    Only once did I post a real gripe on my own blog, and that was when the only vehicle for complaint was a blog backtrack (which I found to be a bizarre method to get negative feedback, no matter how much that helped to drive up Google search results).
    I think your suggestion of providing a place for people to rate something to be a great one–it gives people an outlet for their feelings and gives direct feedback to the company as you have said. According to Forrester Research’s Groundswell publication/blog, rating or ranking things is low-hanging fruit along their ladder of engagement i.e. more people will participate in a rating system than in writing in forums or especially blogging about it.
    Great idea.

  5. Also remember that some companies don’t have clear venues of complaining, so angry consumers give up and go elsewhere — other times, really vitriolic buggers will paste the same spammy message wherever they find a community related to the company (nasty, I know, but I’ve seen this on occasion).
    Making it easy to voice directly to a company is really, really important.

  6. This is interesting. One the one hand companies are encouraging “conversations” online and some even engage bloggers like journalists only to have them write the negative truth, while on the other you’re suggesting that the long tail of negative comment is harmful. Could it be better NOT to encourage the online conversation lest a negative “permanent digital legacy” remains?

  7. Benjamin, I think what we are saying is that if you do not provide some method for feedback (even negative) from the company’s point of view you risk having it blow up elsewhere on the web. Much better to invite feedback and engage in rational discussion than to not respond and leave it to fester into something poisonous elsewhere.
    From the point of view of a consumer/customer/client, I think having a company listen to you would be much preferred as well.

  8. Very interesting thoughts. I encourage people to vent their frustrations online. I’ve had decent success. After a less than appealing sales call from Fido I wrote a post noting my discontent http://tinyurl.com/3gmz4q . It ended up getting passed along to senior management and they compensated me well for my concern. Just do a quick search for the fido head office and you’ll see a host of issues that the company faces. The more people bring up issues online, the more likely all consumers will see the benefits.

  9. Yes very interesting indeed, I must say that I’m tempted to start venting my frustrations online also regarding certain” digital media companies” ( no names mentioned ) who don’t practice what they preach in terms of customer service. For the last 6 months I’ve been trying to get some kind of resolution, and at last the company in question has now resorted to not answering my calls or emails….what is a person to do ? They are left no choice but to employ the very means by which they are speaking about and promoting, kind of like hanging them with their own digital noose.

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