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11 Jan

Branding while the iron is hot

My wife forgot her wallet in an Uber, once.

She realized it the next day, but before we could reach out to Uber's customer care, the driver showed up near my house and returned the wallet. It was such a good gesture that we sometimes call him even now, when we want to be dropped to the airport.

Have you had similar a experience? An instance where some issue got resolved because the business was forthcoming in accepting their mistake or promptly responding to you?

Think how reassuring it felt.

But I want you take a step back before I go ahead with the meat of this essay.

Till businesses and customers interacted in person, customer grievances were resolved privately. Later, phones and emails did the same.

Now, a majority of our transactions are digital. Buyers and sellers are also separated by multiple layers in between.

For instance, when I buy groceries on Instamart or Blinkit and pay using UPI, multiple layers are involved: my internet, the bank's infrastructure, and the seller's. If there is a glitch at any of these layers, my transaction could fail.

Heck, even when you pay using UPI at stores, there is an awkward moment between you and the shopkeeper. You relax only after hearing a success message from the device.

Any liminal period in a digital transaction is pregnant with anxiety.

When the money gets debited but we don't get the promised goods or the payment gateway throws up an error, we wonder if it'll be returned, how long will it take, and whom to reach out to in case we need help.

And with the layers in between and the sheer scale at which most businesses operate, phone calls or email correspondence cannot cater to every issue.

So, most brands now resolve customer grievances using in-app chat-bots, toll-free numbers, and sometimes, social media. The logic is that an efficient chatbot or a toll-free call service allows a business to scale its customer service and resolve many issues that may not need human assistance.

But depending on the severity of our complaint, you'd agree when I say that we have all felt a sense of helplessness when interacting with a business using a chatbot or toll-free number. For instance,

The mechanical and repetitive defaults of an IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system to register an issue feels insufficient. Likewise when interacting with a chatbot. These systems are often limited in the scope of the queries they can successfully resolve because they follow an FAQ format.

Here's another example:

There is resolution, but only for a set of commonly occurring issues.

If the business is big enough there will be an option to speak to a customer service executive. If not, you’re left hanging. All this worsens the anxiety.

Enter social media.

To build positive brand perception online, big and small brands spend extensive resources to build a social media presence, which doubles up as a communication channel.

But communication on social media between brands and customers is public, unlike other grievance redressal methods. Instagram comments and stories, and Twitter mentions are all for a large group to see. Direct messages to brand pages don't guarantee a response.

In fact, the very fact that a complaint on social media is out for all to see may spur brands to be more prompt in their responses!

All brand interaction on social media, then, is open to public judgment.

So, it's in the brand's best interest to err on the side of caution.

The way a fire-fighter would rush to promptly douse a fire, a brand should look at customer grievances on social media in the same spirit. Other than promptness, the quality of the response matters, too.

There is a correct way to respond to online grievances. And you’re often better off not automating this response. Paying attention to crafting the necessary response to an agitated customer is key.

The timing and language of your response add to your public perception, directly impacting your brand.

Here's a case of a customer not getting a response for a long time in spite of tagging the relevant brand:

The moment the customer mentioned Jio, he got a prompt response. Jio, instead of Airtel, shared the next steps the agitated customer could take.

Well, not strictly next steps, but you get the point.

Talk about striking the iron while it's hot!

Not responding to a serious Twitter complaint if you’re a business is like committing brand suicide, at least for that aggrieved individual. There is no way they're coming back to your product or service.

And with major businesses having dedicated teams that are checking Twitter to resolve any customer issues, there is no good excuse either to justify your laxity in responding.

Furthermore, if you complicate the customer journey on purpose, they’ll understand that too. Check this:

Nullifying customer discretion by hiding unsubscribe buttons on emails, creating lengthy and confusing cancellation procedures, and asking for credit card details upfront create friction in using your service are design dark patterns that today do not go unnoticed.

As a business, your assumption is,

"If we complicate the leaving process the customer might just tag along."

Well, guess what. No. They might not. And you’d be eroding all their trust.

And it won’t be long before they get over their laziness, figure out the complex process and leave your business for good. They might also tell a few other people to never buy your product on their way out.

Who is losing? The business, the brand.

And there are ways to not make these mistakes. Using automated replies on social media makes sense if the next day, someone from the customer service team combs through each message and responds with specific help and next steps. Otherwise, it is another form of slow death.

An interesting behaviour change I noticed among many Indian brands was — custom replies to every mention along with the name of the person responding.

For instance, if you look at the way Airtel is responding you realise that it is not automated. A person from the team is responding.

Instead of defending the brand, Wakefit acknowledges the customer’s experience and promises to look into what can be done. Perhaps a little to late though, as the issue has been left unresolved since months. However, in the context of this essay, at least their Twitter team is in the green.

Anyway, the larger point is that as a customer, I would feel heard when a brand merely acknowledges my complaint. And it doesn’t require much to show integrity as a brand.

But with regards to setting a customer service communication benchmark, Swiggy wins in my opinion. Just look at the extent the brand goes to. The main thing to observe here is the gradual mellowing down of the customer’s tone as the conversation moves forward.

For each and every point the customer brings up, the response is specific, like it is in a real conversation. Moreover, the issue isn’t left unresolved in public, to the point that the customer herself responds about the positive experience.

Also notice that Swiggy chose to carry out the entire conversation till its resolution in public than on private DMs.

Being a brand marketer, I think this was totally intentional.

Usually, you only get to see the complaint but not its resolution, as most brands promptly ask the individual to chat in private. But by choosing to resolve the complaint publicly, Swiggy chose to turn a negative situation into something that created positive brand perception.

And this isn't an isolated instance. Swiggy usually does this in most of their customer interactions. Attention is paid to staying with the issue till it's resolved. The conversation only ends when the customer has clarity.

Now that makes for a great brand interaction.

The next time Dwisha orders from Swiggy, she knows that they will help her out in case something goes wrong. There is no room for uncertainty.

And most customers want just that: reassurance and certainty.

A kind gesture; an act of generosity; these things don't show up in the data. But these are the things people talk about when they recommend your brand to their friends.

Earlier in the piece, I also mentioned about striking while the iron is hot. I think there's a more nuanced point to be discussed here.

You see, most products and services are used in a state of dull inattention; almost on autopilot. As long as things are going as expected, no one really cares. But any time a customer faces a hiccup — that is when they're the most receptive and aware.

So, as a brand, anything you do at this junction will have 10x the impact on your brand perception.

If you choose to ignore the complaint or respond inappropriately, the customer is going to feel 10x the ressentiment and resentment. But if you resolve the query tastefully while exhibiting trust and empathy, the customer is going to remember and talk about the experience with 10x the elation as well.

It is a common observation in behavioral psychology that we tend to remember negative experiences much better than positive ones. But think of a negative experience as a hot iron. It's a ripe opportunity to mould customer perception in a way you like, because they're much more sensitive and receptive to whatever you have to say as a brand in that moment.

However, the sad thing is that in today’s tech- and scale-obsessed age, we overlook the power individual interactions can have on word-of-mouth and long-term brand perception. Because these don't show up in the data.

When a customer complains they first want to be heard. Once that is done, they want you to relieve them of their anxiety by first reassuring them, and then, by resolving their issue promptly, while maintaining communication with them at all times.

When we employ clumsily implemented tech-based solutions to resolve grievances, we often end up further agitating the customer by my making them jump through more hoops. While grievances can be collected using tech, your responses have to be tailored and human.

Lastly, customer service is as important to your online branding as the number of followers or likes you get on your content.

I want you to think about that empathetic customer service representative as the dark knight of your brand. But the way things are, this person will rarely be mentioned when the team is discussing brand marketing.

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