The silver lining in complaints

Thanks to the Net, disgruntled consumers have many forums on which to vent their spleens about unsatisfactory products. However, these also provide opportunities for researchers. By Alicia Clegg.

There is a school of thought that says a complaint is a gift. In which case, the personal computer maker Dell has generous customers. In fact, when it comes to complaints, Dell’s customers couldn’t be more open-handed.

The story of the mass consumer protest that engulfed the PC giant reads like a digital mortality tale. In June 2005 Dell sold a PC to Jeff Jarvis, author of a popular US technology weblog. The machine did not work and the promised in-home service proved no better.

Disillusioned and irate, Jarvis began blogging about Dell’s failings. Other malcontents – dubbed “Dell Hellers” – pitched in and the original splenetic outburst snowballed into an online eruption of consumer disgruntlement. In August Jarvis wrote an article for The Guardian which catapulted the fomenting PR crisis across the Atlantic. At the height of the rumpus, whether coincidentally or as a result of the bad publicity, Dell’s US customer satisfaction ratings, market share and share price began to slip.

Networks of Complaints
The tradition of consumers naming and shaming corporations that backslide on their promises predates blogging. But the Dell saga makes plain how much easier the Web has made it for aggrieved citizens to band together. Put another way, in the networked economy the bad opinion of consumers travels fast.

Research published by Ipsos MORI late last year confirms the moral of the Dell saga. According to the study, which ran in five countries, over a third of Europeans have decided not to make a purchase after reading unfavourable comments placed online by customers of a brand or other private individuals. What is more, the people most influenced by blogs are the very people whom brands most want to influence: those who regularly spend over £100 per month on internet purchases. Such findings raise sharp issues for large corporations. Among them is whether businesses really need focus groups and satisfaction surveys to guide strategy when unhappy customers are letting rip with their opinions, for free, in cyberspace.

Market Clarity director Stephen Martin sees uninvited comment as a wake-up call for firms that run surveys more from habit than a desire to learn. “There’s a huge tendency in firms to only pay heed to stuff that’s got numbers associated with it, when a small number of qualitative interviews can yield real insight.” Added to which, companies have a habit of developing metrics for things that are easy to measure, whilst ignoring issues that are difficult to quantify, but which customers may care about more.

To get away from this perverse, if convenient, practice of researching what the company, not the customer, thinks is important, Martin urges marketers to scour websites and blogs for references to their brands. The belt-and-braces approach is to invest in software that continuously scans the Web but even manual searches can dredge up problems. Thus informed, businesses can offer to put things right for individuals who have manifestly suffered a raw deal and, where a pattern emerges, organise follow-on research to discover the full extent and source of the problem.

Research Opportunities
Enthusiasm for recovering customers through Web-based detective work is encouraging businesses to look at how traditional channels might also be harnessed for research purposes. Customer contact centres are ideally placed to act as listening posts. All too often, however, businesses let the opportunity to pick up on tensions between them and their customers slip.

David Williams, chief executive of consultancy H2X, lays the blame, in part, on the prevalence of codified surveys. Routinely offered at the end of a call to a contact centre, these typically require customers to force-fit their gripes into pre-coded boxes that invariably miss the point. To overcome this limitation, Williams recommends simply attaching a verbal comment box to automated surveys allowing callers to describe, in their own words, where the company’s service has fallen short.

Customers who suffer sub-standard service can complain or simply take their cheque-books elsewhere. The traditional wisdom is that the customer who leaves quietly is more to be feared than the one who kicks up a stink, but at least makes their displeasure known. Now, with the growth of loyalty cards and online shopping, companies increasingly know when a customer has stopped buying. This opens the way for research to find out why defectors who left the brand did so and, more importantly, how to win them back.

Amanda Scott, head of technology, media and telecoms research at FreshMinds, sees customer research targeted at lapsed customers as the way ahead. As an example she cites telephone-based research which FreshMinds conducted for a business client whose sales had plummeted. “In all cases, we found that people were really impressed that a supplier cared enough to find out why they had stopped purchasing,” she says. As a follow-up the company initiated a programme of service improvements and re-contacted clients to let them know when the problems had been solved.

Cultural Jamming
Creating brand advocates out of disaffected, or lapsed, customers is time-consuming, but doable given the right motivation. More difficult to tackle are criticisms directed not at how brands perform, but what they stand for.

Rachel Lawes, founder of Lawes Consulting, has made a study of this phenomenon, which she will present at the Market Research Society’s annual conference in March. In her paper Lawes looks at the rise of a form of anti-consumerism known as “culture jamming”. Typified by grass-roots movements, such as Adbusters Media Foundation, culture jammers employ the tactics of the political satirist, punk activist and urban graffiti artist to subvert marketing communications and wake people up to the “polluting” effects of brand-obsessed culture.

Examples include: posting spoof ads on the Web – such as a stick-thin model retching over a toilet bowl in a take-off of a commercial for Obsession, the Calvin Klein fragrance; pasting stickers saying “GREASE” on tables and trays in McDonald’s restaurants; and even organising people to walk around Wal-Mart stores, in an apparent daze, buying nothing.

In an earlier age, such stunts might have been dismissed as the posturings of an unrepresentative fringe. Not any more, says Lawes, who sees mistrust of large corporations as a characteristic that defines consumer culture as much as its appetite for consuming. A consequence of this, she argues, is that many consumers share the sentiments of brand saboteurs. “While only a tiny percentage of consumers are culture jammers, many others are very receptive to what they have to say.”

The Brands’ Response
So where does this leave brand-owners? One response to culture jammers is to let them do their worst, on the not unreasonable assumption that sophisticated consumers will relish the joke, but go on buying the brand regardless. This is most likely when an attack is low-key or, like many of the spoofs on the Web, more parody than biting critique.

“It’s important to know the difference between spoofs that oppose brands and those that actually celebrate consumer culture,” says Alex Gordon, head of semiotics at research consultancy Flamingo International.

Sometimes, however, companies bite back. In her paper, Lawes outlines a form of retaliation, known as “recuperation”, in which brands use irony to turn the tables on their detractors. A case in point is the US beauty brand, Philosophy, which sells “hope in a jar”, an ironic appropriation of a phrase first coined by critics of the beauty business. But do retaliatory tactics achieve their goal?Using ironic humour to wrong-foot an assailant can work well, or backfire badly. The safest ground is when consumers, deep down, don’t want to be put off the brand by its critics. Philosophy’s tongue-in-cheek appeal to brand-savvy women who, however aware they may be, still dream of wiping 15 years off their crows-feet is a perfect example.

More risky, says semiotics consultant Greg Rowland, are markets that target a varied mix of people. An example might be fast-food chains patronised by everyone, from feisty opponents of “food fascism” to harassed mums who easily recoil from brands that thumb their nose at concerns over obesity. Says Rowland: “If you make an advertisement that’s adored by the 30% of the public who make up your target market that’s fine, even if everyone else hates it.” But, he adds, “you have to get your numbers right.”

With the eruption of user-generated comment on the Web, corporations used to dealing with customers at an arm’s length now find themselves confronting a cynical public ready to believe the worst about their brands. Now, more than ever, brands need cultural insight to fathom the complicated world of consumers.

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