Dear customer relations: The fury of the festive shopper

At a time when shopping and sentiments hit stratospheric heights, complaints, too, are bound to rise.

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For many social media users, Twitter has become the go-to platform for registering grievances.
As brands are committing to ‘listen’ more, consumers are doing their best to test companies’ hearing. Today, one unsatisfactory experience can lead to caustic comments and boycott appeals on social media. While hashtag movements are blips of attention, it leaves a permanent mark somewhere on these platforms, resulting in negative impressions for brands. For instance, recently, Mohamed Najiullah, a Chennai-based senior consultant at a software consultancy firm, had a bad experience with hospitality company Oyo. Najiullah, who didn't want to stop at a tweet or a Facebook post, created a website called oyo-ruined-my-anniversary.com. While Oyo offered to close the issue with a refund, Najiullah hasn’t accepted the peace deal, so far. Like Najiullah, there are thousands of customers that turn to social media to complain instead of, say, writing a private email or letter to customer relations. These days, even private letters of complaint find their way to public platforms if customers aren’t content with resolutions offered by companies.

Now, at a time when shopping and sentiments hit stratospheric heights, complaints, too, are bound to rise. For example, after Amazon’s Great Indian Festival and Flipkart’s Big Billion Days sales activities, there have been hundreds of upset customers who haven’t got their orders, have been put on hold by customer service agents, or have received wrong products. The worst, of course, is opening a package and finding bubble-wrapped air.

At companies’ service desks and digital marketing agencies, festive season complaints can be overwhelming with the wave of discontent that’s mostly triggered because of the emotional nature of the season. For the women and men on social media frontlines, Diwali dhamakas has a different meaning as they are left to deal with hordes of unhappy customers with short fuses.


Apply offline logic and manage ‘sentiments’ not complaints
According to Anjali Malthankar, national strategy director, Tonic Worldwide, an agency that works with brands like South Africa Tourism, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Flying Machine and Paypal, the cardinal rules don’t change with medium. “Would you think of ignoring a customer’s complaint at a brand store? No. The least you will do is acknowledge the problem. Brands are expected to do the same on online platforms. The most basic and immediate response is ‘acknowledgement’,” says Malthankar.

Festive customer relationship management (CRM) is more about ‘sentiment management’ than handling complaints. “While we attend to the negative sentiment with close supervision, the positive sentiment is often overlooked and under-leveraged. I feel to keep sentiment balance it is important to equally celebrate the positive conversations. There will always be complaints which will need to be resolved but if brands leverage positive sentiment it should help them get through the festive season with desired results.” And fewer battle scars.

Ambika Sharma, founder and MD, Pulp Strategy, believes “time, speed and empathy” are critical. However, auto-responses is not the ideal way to deal with customers online. “Bots cannot replace the human factor when dealing with charged emotions,” she says. Sharma prescribes a better balance between personalisation and bot dependence.
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What’s your TAT?
Zafar Rais, founder, MindShift Interactive, says the timing of redressal is important, too. “It is important to differentiate between customer relationship management versus relationship marketing and make the former a priority in this situation. Given the high traction, brands see during the season, responding within a pre-decided Turn Around Time (TAT) becomes the priority, along with ensuring sensitivity towards queries, concerns and urgency. Your TAT defines the success of your brand's social media presence and care towards each customer.”

Rais who works closely with several hospitality clients is of the opinion that delighting or offering discounts will not appease everyone. “Take the conversation offline or onto a private message to avoid further backlash and angst. Customers usually calm down once you have responded and are willing to engage in a conversation towards resolution. It’s also a way to reinforce brand personality. The way you address an issue and the tone you use to speak with customers should be in line with overall brand tonality and imagery,” he adds.

Build a team of compassionate communicators
Adhvith Dhuddu, founder and CEO, AliveNow, who works on creative AR solutions, chatbots, Alexa Skills for various local and global brands says it is important to appropriately staff and equip online reputation management (ORM) teams during peak seasons.
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“The last thing you want is overworked ORM teams replying to annoyed customers. Before the festive season starts, a clear brief to ORM teams is a must. From going through the do's and dont's lists to standard operating procedures, might seem basic but is extremely important. Groom them to be fully equipped with information to be able to handle and manage complaints well. By this I mean, the ability to speak directly to product teams, shipping teams, logistics teams, be well versed with return policies, refund policies, etc. The better equipped and informed the ORM teams are, the more time the brand saves in helping to resolve customer issues,” he says.

Varun Duggirala, co-founder and content chief, The Glitch, tells Brand Equity, “Our brief to ORM teams is not to be too clinical in your approach. Be more compassionate. It is a time when emotions are on a different high so it’s even more important to build a relationship of trust with the consumer at points like these, and inspire a feeling of ‘the brand cares and will work to resolve this’.”
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When Disgruntled Customers Get Creative
For many social media users, Twitter has become the go-to platform for registering grievances. In 2013, Hasan Syed took it a step further when he paid to promote a tweet to complain about British Airways losing his father’s luggage and the airline’s handling of the situation. According to unverified reports, Syed spent close to $1,000 to promote a series of tweets to alert users to his views on the airline’s customer service failings.

In 2009, Canadian singer Dave Carroll took to YouTube to shame United Airlines. Carroll had claimed that his Taylor acoustic guitar had been damaged by baggage handlers. His video ‘United Breaks Guitars’ became a YouTube sensation and provided Carroll with the biggest hit of his career. The video currently has over 19 million views.
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