Customer Communities: Negative Feedback can be Your Friend

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On the ride home from work last Thursday, I was listening to NPR (National Public Radio) and the hosts shared messages they received from listeners regarding NPR’s recent Iraqi war coverage. I can’t remember the quotes, but the reviews were predominately negative. I remember words such as sickening, atrocious, disrespectful, disgusted and surprising.

These words read on the radio clicked with me that day. They set off a thought in my head related to online communities of customers and the role of negative feedback in customer community building. Here is what I thought…

There is a reason NPR reads these comments on the air on a regular basis. I know little about radio or broadcasting but I think there is something powerful occurring when negative comments are shared in this way. I felt a new respect for NPR’s forthright honesty and a connection with other listeners that I hadn’t felt before.

Negative Comments Provide Voice

These comments represent the voice of the listener. When I heard the comments on the radio, I knew the stories of which they were speaking and I felt the same when I heard them. I instantly felt connected to the other listeners, we experienced the same feelings; we shared the same perspective. By reading these comments on the air, NPR helped me feel like I was connected to their community of loyal and concerned listeners.

By inviting listeners to share their criticisms and then reading them on the air, NPR is saying “Here we are, warts and all. We will never please everyone, but we are listening and doing our best. To show you that we are aware of our listeners’ opinions, here is what people are saying…�?

This gesture is nothing new to the media. Take a look at almost any magazine and you’ll see some sort of “cheers and jeers�?. I believe this type of feedback-made-public is representative of an effective way that companies can benefit from online communities of their customers.

Perceptions on Customer Communities

It is a perception that online communities of customers can be risky because they may backfire and become a liability. Some of the common concerns may be: “What if they bash us in front of all the other customers?�? “What if it turns into a complaint forum?�? “How can we make sure it doesn’t turn negative and change perceptions of all our customers?�?

I think this is true across many companies who consider building an online community and is a valid concern. The thought of bringing customers together and giving each customer the ability to be critical in public sounds like a recipe for disaster. In some cases, it certainly can be. However, I strongly believe that what companies instinctively want to avoid regarding customer communities can be their greatest asset.

The Hidden Asset

A couple of years ago, I was inspired by the irreverant web site and book The Cluetrain Manifesto- it helped me define my perspective on this subject. Here is what I think is a good, albeit casual response to the common fears regarding customer communities: “Look at it this way. Assume your customers are going to talk about you no matter what you do. When they talk, they are going to talk about what is wrong and what they don’t like about your company. You have a choice: you can let them continue talk using their own network and let the negativity multiply blindly, or you can sponsor a network, become a part of the discussion and show the customers what you’re doing to help.�?
Overall, here is the crux of my point:

  • Negative comments may be a symptom of a problem that all customers experience
  • By allowing these comments to flow, you learn and help all customers feel that they are being heard
  • By giving them a common voice, they feel unified and connected to one another
  • By promoting and responding to these comments honestly, you can become a connected part of the network
  • As members of the same network, you can build trust and loyalty by demonstrating that you are aware of problems and working to change things for the better
  • If you can build trust and loyalty in your customer base, you’re on your way to being more successful

The alternative is to pretend that customers are all perfectly happy and spreading the good news wherever they go. This strategy is much less risky, less costly in the short term and much easier for the board to stomach. Plus, “that’s the way it’s always worked and we’ve done fine�?- what Seth Godin would sardonically call a “winning strategy�?. I would agree with Seth that today’s winning strategies can easily become tomorrow’s liabilities.

Like NPR reading negative comments on the air, companies have an opportunity to view negative comments in online communities as a new chance to connect and serve customers. Just like the connection I felt to other listeners when negative feedback was voiced on the radio, customers feel connected when they realize they are not alone and someone is speaking for them.

If customers choose to be critical, their comments should not be hidden or diverted, they should be shared because they may represent a silent majority that is looking for a voice. By giving customers a voice and responding to them in a community, companies can build a valuable and irreplaceable foundation of trust and open communication. Using this foundation, customers can become more enabled to help companies make real improvements that make a real difference.

See also: Serving Customer Communities Online