Why We Love Negative Customer Feedback (And Why You Should Too)


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Bill Gates famously said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

Imagine if Gates hadn’t bothered to ask for feedback or address his customers’ concerns. Would Microsoft have become the iconic brand it is today?

Not by a long shot.

Asking customers about their experience with you, and doing something meaningful in response, is critical to staying competitive. It’s not only a diagnostic tool for improving service, but also a sign of caring and goodwill—and helps to avoid social media disaster.

More importantly, it gives you a chance to shine when things go wrong. In the eyes of your customers, how you react to negative feedback is the truest measure of your brand.

Negative Feedback Is Worth Its Weight in Gold

Unhappy customers take poor experiences personally. When filling out customer satisfaction surveys, they’re more emotionally invested, so they tend to relay their experiences in vivid detail. This helps businesses get right to the root of the problem and address it.

But retailers rarely get this chance. On average, fewer than 2% of our clients’ survey responses are negative. This number is consistent across all retail categories.

Of course, 2% is just the tip of the iceberg—the part you can actually see. There’s much more going on beneath the surface. Last year, a survey of 2,500 consumers revealed that half of the respondents experienced problems during an in-store visit. Only 19% of these disaffected shoppers reached out to the retailer.

It’s a safe bet that many of the silent 81% took their business elsewhere. The 19% who aired their grievances gave retailers a golden opportunity to make things right. When retailers did so, these customers were 84% less likely to limit their spending. Considering the high cost of acquiring new customers, this amounts to a huge return.

What Your Angry Customers Really Want From You

Many retailers respond to customer complaints by offering coupons and store credits. But throwing money at the customer doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, it suggests you’re not that concerned about the specific complaint and not fully invested in the customer relationship.

What customers want is acknowledgment, appreciation, and meaningful action. They want their faith restored. They want to know you truly care about their business.

Don’t jump the gun. Listen carefully. Make sure you fully understand the situation and the complaint. If you miss important details, you can’t offer an appropriate remedy.
Be as specific as you can be. Explain exactly what you’ll do to address the problem.
Focus on making concrete, lasting improvements. Speak with the associate(s) involved. If it’s a product issue, speak to the manufacturer or buyer.
Treat angry customers like allies. Be attentive, responsive, and sincere. Make a point of thanking them for taking the time to help improve your service.

How Customer Satisfaction Surveys Work Best

A single resolved complaint can save a customer. In the aggregate, customer satisfaction surveys can elevate brands.

For many of our customers, gathering customer feedback is a closed-loop process. Retailers (often times store directors) reach out to customers who provided feedback the day or week prior in an ongoing effort to improve service at individual locations. They use our note-capturing software to follow up on complaints, asking store associates for updates or noting times and dates of customer contact.

For retailers with hundreds or thousands of stores nationwide, customer satisfaction surveys reveal big-picture trends. Where were we last month, and where are we now? Where do we want to be, and what will it take to get there?

When we find recurring issues, or customers are consistently citing pain (what we call “1-4 ratings”) in a specific area of the store, we execute mystery shopping programs, or brand audits, to objectively measure the customer experience and uncover the source of the low scores.

It’s all part of our clients’ ongoing efforts to manage the customer experience. When retailers pair the “what” (customer satisfaction scores) with the “why” (brand audit results), they begin to see a clear path to improvement, market distinction, and growth.

How Do You Manage Your Customer Experience?

What programs (including voice of the customer) do you use to manage the customer experience? How can retailers improve their approach to handling customer complaints?

Don’t hold back! Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Kevin Leifer
Kevin and his team at StellaService help their clients build solutions that optimize front-line team performance and improve customer experiences across contact centers and stores.


  1. Totally agree Kevin. I welcome negative feedback as long as there’s something I can learn from it; it’s easy for business stakeholders to get blinded by whatever they’re doing and overlook a key shortcoming in the customer experience. Similarly I’m always happy to reach out to businesses when I’m unsatisfied–not to complain (most of the time), but to help them improve my experience in the future.

  2. That’s a solid point, Mark. While we ask for feedback, we cannot always expect it to be well formulated and constructive. But, not asking for the feedback would preclude us from receiving any.


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