The power of word of mouth: from the ladies who lunch


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Marketing is all a-twitter with the opportunities represented by web 2.0 and social media for sharing consumer word of mouth – both good and bad. But the reality is we have always had the ‘twitter’ effect, with reputations made and broken by consumers sharing their experiences with each other. Take the example of a ladies’ lunch I overheard the other day in the restaurant of a Malmaison hotel – (incidentally, Malmaison are a great example of how to craft a distinctive customer experience. Their latest hotel in the UK is Oxford Castle, a former jail. The cells have been converted into bijou rooms).

How to turn customers into terrorists

The story I overheard provides a blueprint for how the absence of customer experience design can leave your customers falling through gaps in the (undesigned) process and turn them into terrorists – people who will destroy your reputation every opportunity they can, as revenge for how your customer experience let them down. A lady at an adjacent table was telling her five friends how her initial annoyance over the failure of a company to repair her cooker under a warranty agreement gave way to real anger. I won’t repeat the whole story (it took her 20 minutes to tell) but a number of important points struck me about her story.

No one took responsibility for solving her problem. As service engineer after service engineer called on her (during her working time; she had to take time off for each visit), they each diagnosed a different problem to the one they had been sent to remedy. The result was that they did not have the appropriate spare parts and they spent time blaming the previous engineer who had mis-diagnosed the problem. The result – two months with no cooker and still seemingly no nearer solving the problem.

Bureaucracy seemed to rule over common sense. Despite repeated calls to the company, it seemed that the people booking the service calls didn’t talk to the engineers who had previously called on the customer, even though she found out they were all located in the same building. When she asked why this was the case she was told the contact centre people were not allowed to approach the service engineer department. She also found out that the contact centre employees were measured on the number of service calls they handled in a day and how long each call took.

She had to take control of the process herself to overcome the absence of a coherent inter-departmental process. In trying to solve the problem she came into contact with the contracts department (she threatened to cancel her agreement), billing (to say she was cancelling her bank direct debit), service engineering, customer care, the contact centre and the organization’s customer complaints department – which was ineffective because it was held hostage to the speed and attention the individual departments chose to give to a complaint. Her frustration increased at the seeming indifference and inability of anyone to operate outside their departmental silos. Eventually the repair was completed but only, she felt, after she took control.

As I sat listening to her story her voice grew louder and by now many people on surrounding tables were also able to hear what she was saying. It was clearly an emotional experience.

So what are the lessons?

1. Empathize, empathize, empathize. Showing empathy is not the same as accepting responsibility – after all the customer may have been using the product incorrectly which is why the fault occurred in the first place, However, whatever the reason for the fault, empathy is about recognizing the inconvenience the customer may be experiencing and acknowledging their right to feel upset. And this, as we know from our research partner Harding and Yorke, is necessary if an organization is to establish emotional loyalty from its customers.

2. The process for handling customer complaints
or product faults that need fixing has to span departmental boundaries and have teeth in order to be effective. The complaints process itself is part of the overall customer experience and should therefore be designed with the customer in mind rather than be left to chance.

3. Problems need to be solved quickly and end on a high to create a customer who is more loyal, despite the problem, than they were before. The length of time our lady was without her cooker and the fact that when it was repaired she felt it was her efforts, not those of the organization, left her as an enemy not a fan of the company.

4. Use customer experiences such as this one to spot and fix the gaps between your departmental systems – gaps through which the customer falls – that need to be bridged to create a seamless customer experience, with a single view of the customer throughout the organization.

Turning customer conversations into recommendations

A customer complaint or a fault needing to be fixed represents an opportunity to turn a disappointed customer into an enthusiastic one.  Not that we would recommend organizations set out to create more unhappy customers, but research has shown that a previously unhappy customer whose complaint has been well handed can often turn out to be more loyal than a customer who has had no reason to ask you to put something right.

Plus we know that unhappy customers typically tell ten times as many people about their experience than those people who are ‘satisfied’. And customers increasingly listen to each other, not to your marketing, when making buying decisions; customer referrals and customer criticism decide your reputation. In that sense, your customer experience creates the buzz or conversations that spread your reputation – for good or bad.

So, what conversations are customers having about you? And how are you using them to improve your customer experience? If you are not, there’s a danger you are creating customer terrorists rather than fans, and destroying company value by damaging your brand’s reputation.

John Aves

Shaun Smith
Shaun Smith is the founder of Smith+Co the leading UK based Customer Experience consultancy. Shaun speaks and consults internationally on the subject of the brand purpose and customer experience. Shaun's latest book 'On Purpose- delivering a branded customer experience people love' was co-written with Andy Milligan.


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