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Proactive vs. Reactive: How to Damage-Control Online Complaints?

A few months ago, I wrote about how SMBs can use social media to create word of mouth (WOM). In that post, I talked about blogging and how it can create a buzz around your brand. However, social media can and often is used by customers to spread negative WOM. The customer’s complaint can be justified or not, but once it spreads out, it doesn’t really matter.

One of the most extreme examples of how things can go wrong quickly is the story about South African mobile operator Cell C and the comedian Trevor Noah. Trevor Noah, a famous comedian in South Africa, uploaded a video to YouTube and complained about the operator’s service. According to media reports, his complaint cost Cell C hundreds of thousands of dollars. The operator publicly apologized on the pages of one of South Africa’s most widely read newspapers. Also, in order to minimize damages and turn the tables, Cell C ended up hiring him for a marketing campaign.

One thing is clear: online complaints and negative WOM are causes of concern for any business. The main question is HOW to deal with them?

Research conducted by two researchers from the University of Amsterdam attempts to answer just that. They first define two types of response strategies: proactive vs. reactive. Companies that choose to be proactive make unsolicited responses to customers’ complaints online, while companies that take a reactive approach respond only when asked.

The authors also analyze the effect of responding on consumer-generated (personal social media accounts and blogs) vs. brand-generated platforms (business pages on social media and companies’ blogs).

Results show that direct responses to requests, on both user-generated and brand-generated platforms, were effective in the protection of the company’s reputation because these responses indicated to consumers that the company was willing to engage with them on their own terms.

However, being proactive on user-generated mediums was perceived by consumers as intrusive and unbecoming. Another interesting finding of this research is that consumers appreciate a personal touch. Responding by using a first name and communicating “at eye level” can go a long way.

In conclusion, companies should focus their web care efforts where they can be the most effective. While they are entitled to respond to complaints on their own online platforms, they should watch out from overstepping the boundaries when it comes to user-generated mediums.

Based on: Van Noort, Guda and Lotte M. Willemsen. “Online Damage Control: The Effects of Proactive Versus Reactive Webcare  Interventions in Consumer-generated and Brand-generated Platforms.” Journal of Interactive Marketing 26 (2011) : 131–140. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.

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