Hug your haters

Hug your haters: what brands can learn from dissatisfied customers

In late 2019, a few days before Christmas, a formal notice arrived in the office informing me that I had 10 days to cough up a huge amount of money to my social insurance fund. The contribution for quarter three of that year had not been paid in full, and now the fund in question immediately demanded all other amounts, including those not yet due, to be paid immediately. After some angry interactions with customer service, the problem seemed to be down to their algorithm. It was the last straw for me after years of a distant and quite administrative relationship with the brand in question.

Then, when I asked my contacts on Linkedin where I would be better off as a small business owner in the future, it rained responses and the topic seemed to cause a real stir amongst more than 17,000 readers. Just about everyone had an opinion on this rather unsexy matter, and the poll I linked to my post was even circulated internally at competing insurance funds in order to manipulate the vote. Big absentee in the online polemic? My own social insurance fund. After years of cold war, toxic emails and hiding behind their procedures and algorithms, it remained suspiciously quiet.

Until one mundane afternoon, I received a call from a number unknown to me. The call came from none other than the director of marketing and communications of the insurance fund in question that I had been quarreling with for years. Whether I wanted to make some time to explain to him what exactly was going on, he asked, and whether I was up for outlining to him what, in my professional opinion, could be done better in regards to their customer experience? Throughout the more than an hour-long conversation, the man made no attempt to keep me on board as a customer; in fact, he understood my frustrations all too well. He gave casual clarification as to why the whole situation was happening, described in detail the steps being taken internally to make processes more customer-centric and apologised at length for what had happened to me. It was an open, honest and casual conversation among professionals – without any hidden agenda. He wanted to give me a chance to share my grievances (knowing full well what I do for a living) and learn from my experiences as a customer in order to do better and internally turn appropriate feedback into policy.

I was impressed by this approach for days. I admired the guts of a high-ranking director of a large company, who made an hour’s time in his busy day to gain insights from an angry customer – all without making any promises, without sneaking the cause into my shoes, without hiding in ivory towers and without even trying to keep me on board. What I found even more extraordinary was that (after I also paid the above compliment to him) he stated that he schedules such a conversation with disgruntled customers every month, by humbly calling them up and listening through the indignities to what the underlying issues in their business model are.

He took the trouble to ask her personally what exactly bothered her so much and how they as a brand could do better in the future. Impressive.

A month earlier, he had called a lady who had been very upset on Facebook about what she perceived as a “sexist ad aimed at young mothers”. Although he did not initially understand that disgruntled opinion, he took the trouble to ask her personally what exactly bothered her so much and how they as a brand could do better in the future. Soon after, they had organised a seminar internally that dealt with these sensitivities and paid attention to gender politics and sexism. Impressive.

It reminded me of a conversation I had some years ago. When I had made myself quite angry with my bank via e-mail and left an overnight epistle on customer experience in their mailbox, I was invited to the headquarters of the bank in question for a meeting with my sympathetic long-time account manager and the brand’s customer happiness officer. Even then, extensive time was taken to listen to a customer over coffee in a casual manner and diligently note where the low-hanging fruit regarding customer experience could be picked.

Each time, I thought afterwards that I would not have liked to be in the place of the people in question. It takes courage – in some cases probably a thick skin too – to voluntarily expose oneself to criticism, frustration and sometimes even unadulterated anger from customers. Nevertheless, it is an incredibly valuable way to optimise your customer experience as well. By first showing empathy and then continuing to ask questions with an open mind, you can not only learn a lot from haters, but also turn them into fans in the short term.

By first showing empathy and then continuing to ask questions with an open mind, you can not only learn a lot from haters, but also turn them into fans in the short term.

Customers want to be understood and recognised. This is true when things go well, but also (and especially) when things go wrong. Sitting around the table or talking at length on the phone with an angry customer is a classic example of a real win-win situation. First, there is the empathic effect on the customer, who is often able to express his/her frustrations for the first time in a long time and may only then be able to understand certain situations. It also allows your brand to provide clarification without getting away with cheap excuses or hiding behind procedures. Secondly, there is the chance to learn from the stories of those who have seen the ugliest side of your brand. By really listening, without judgement or justifying yourself straight away, it is often unbelievable which aspects can be improved quickly and which interventions can easily remove friction.

Of course, as a brand, it takes courage and all egos need to be eliminated as much as possible. But actively engaging in hugging your haters not only benefits the parties involved, but ensures a grounded and impactful optimisation of your customer journey. So, contact your least satisfied customers today and start working on what you learn from their frustrations, you won’t regret it.