The Reverse of Advocacy: Impacts of Customer Alienation and Sabotage


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Daiji wa shoji kara: “Serious disasters come from small causes” Feudal Japanese proverb

The polar opposite of Advocates are Saboteurs (or ‘Badvocates’, as coined by leading PR firm, Weber Shandwick). Saboteurs are the extreme of what we label as ‘Alienated’ customers, whose assessment of a supplier can range from mildly annoyed and disaffected to outright, revenge-seeking anger.

In B2C situations, more than half of customers report problems with one or more elements of their transactions with suppliers. These are customers who, having had a bad experience will a) typically not tell the company about it (and there are multiple, well-documented reasons why so few customers actually complain), but b) also typically tell many of their friends, colleagues, and relatives through offline and online means. This is ‘badvocacy’, the alienated, flip side of customer advocacy which may be 20%, or more, of the consuming B2C and B2B public (as estimated by Weber Shandwick), varying by the product, service, or supplier.

Alienated customers share many of the same characteristics as Advocates, just in opposite ways as regards their attitudes and behaviors. They are individuals who have poor opinions of certain organizations, brands, and products; and, they speak or act, as critics and detractors, on behalf of these organizations, brands, and products. They communicate negatively to friends and families. They communicate negatively in their neighborhoods. They communicate negatively at work. They communicate negatively online, through chat rooms, rating sites, and blogs. Some, the most motivated badvocates and saboteurs, will go so far as to set up elaborate contra web sites and encourage open griping from any and all about bad experiences.

Much of customer alienation and sabotage behavior, both B2B and B2C, has been spawned by frustration and disappointment over service and product experiences, and the feeling that brands and companies don’t share their customers’ personal concerns, leaving them unheard. Poor customer service experience is often the breeding ground for negative downstream communication. According to providers and customers, the quality and competence of service agents, along with their ability to address customer concerns on the first phone call or e-mail, and relate on an emotional and personal level, rank as the two most important factors in delivering a superior, differentiated service experience. When these are delivered in a reactive, less-than competent and caring, or even unqualified, manner, the potential for negative post experience communication is set in motion.

Customers today are looking to benchmark their experiences against the greater sophistication of Web 2.0 technologies, and they are coming to expect multi-channel support and an integrated, seamless experience. Companies have failed to keep pace with these expectations due to poor customer segmentation and last-generation loyalty metrics, underinvestment in, or poor design of, technology solutions, silo-based organizational structures, and poorly designed processes and agent training. What customers actually want, and what companies need to deliver, is trust, i.e. a perception that service processes and technologies are designed to optimize their relationship with the company and provide value.

Even more serious, in its customer experience study from a few years ago, customer service software company RightNow Technologies (now part of Oracle) learned that 84% of customers who experienced poor service would communicate that result to others (up from 74% the previous year and 57% from two years prior); and 87% said they stopped doing business with a company because of a negative service experience.

The dynamics of expression, both positive and negative, saw a major change with the rise of the Internet. Initially, people went to web sites to conduct their own research on brands, products, services, and organizations, sometimes ‘showrooming’ along the way. Before too long, web sites like Amazon and Ebags were offering online customers the opportunity to rate products and services that they bought and used; and customers were also able to conduct pricing and performance comparisons, and also to offer opinions on their own experiences.

One key result of this online information accessibility was the realization that customers now had significantly more influence and power over product and service choice behavior (their own as well as the behavior of others) than ever before. In fact, the pendulum for B2B and B2C customer decision-making influence had permanently shifted away from the companies. Consumers owned the influence as well as the decision-making and could now endorse or criticize companies, and their products and services, both offline and through online virtual soapboxes. These include contra web sites, podcasts, blogs and communities. And, sabotaging employees used many of these same online media to virally undermine their employers.

The reality is that negative word-of-mouth can seriously dilute and impair brand equity, creating long-term alienation among all stakeholders. It has gotten increasing attention over the past few years, but it needs more.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


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