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What customers are saying and thinking about you

A few years ago, a passenger complaint letter to Virgin Atlantic circulated around the web. It was very long, fully illustrated with photos, clearly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and very funny, but it made a few good points about the bad food and surly service this particular passenger had experienced.

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
3 min read
Who complains about my product?

A few years ago, a passenger complaint letter to Virgin Atlantic circulated around the web. It was very long, fully illustrated with photos, clearly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and very funny, but it made a few good points about the bad food and surly service this particular passenger had experienced.

Almost three years later it still occasionally shows up as one of the most-read stories at In 2009, another disgruntled passenger created a music video about how United baggage handlers had broken his $3,500 guitar. He uploaded the song to YouTube, and to date it has been viewed more than ten million times. United’s customer service department, which had originally denied him any kind of compensation, quickly changed their minds as the video went viral. They adjusted their tone from defensive to humorous and held a meeting with the passenger. Eventually the airline made a charitable donation to a jazz school in his name. The problem is that none of their existing, former, or potential customers care that United eventually resolved the customer complaint. All they remember is that it took a funny song and nine million YouTube hits to get the airline to do the right thing. United responded about as nimbly and elegantly as a dad trying to name-check Jay-Z at his kid’s birthday party. Not pretty.

The point is, it’s easier than ever to find out what your customers are thinking and saying about you these days. It’s also much easier for their opinions to go viral, so it’s imperative that you respond to your them with the same speed and immediacy they use to critique you.

Social networking sites have fundamentally changed the nature of the customer complaint. Customer complaints are morphing from one-off exchanges between a customer and a service representative into ongoing conversations, often in real-time, visible to the public, and open to anyone who cares to comment. By monitoring these sites (I currently focus on Facebook and Twitter, but I might be tracking others by the time you read this), you can hear what your customers are saying about you, without them even being aware that their opinions are being heard.

I recently found out about a notebook hinge problem through Twitter. How? I have the TweetDeck app up all the time, and I use it to search for any tweet related to HP. One day I was sitting in my office and a customer tweeted that he was having a problem with a hinge on his HP notebook. The complaint got my attention. I put down what I was doing and went to respond to the tweet, but before I could even get my hands on the keyboard another customer replied, “It’s a known problem, HP has a repair protocol.” A few seconds later he used a second tweet to direct the customer to the customer-service number.

What? I’m the CTO of the PC division and even I had no idea that we (a) had a problem or (b) had a solution. Yet here was a customer who was at least two steps ahead of me.

I grabbed the phone, dialed the product team, and asked, “What’s this I’m hearing about a problem with the hinges on one of our notebooks?” The person on the other end nearly had a heart attack. His department was carefully preparing the internal e-mail describing the problem, and suddenly the CTO of the division is breathing down his neck asking him what the heck is going on.

The reality is, you can no longer keep problems like this off the radar, either within your organization or with your customers. Your only option is to engage with the people who care enough to make their feelings public. And don’t stop at simply resolving an issue. The customers, who take time out to post their opinions, or direct others to solutions, are the ones who have actually thought about what you do, and how you do it. Odds are, if they’ve complained about what you’re doing, they’ve also thought about ways to do it better. So ask them.

Having a digital customer service solution, such as help desk by Salesforce, can better connect you to your customer base and make any communication between you and them more seamless.

Sparking Points

  • How do you receive and respond to customer complaints? Do you ever see them directly, or are they filtered through a specific department?
  • Are your customers having a real-time conversation on Twitter, Facebook, or Yelp about what you are doing, and what you are doing to engage? Do you have the flexibility to respond immediately to these conversations?
  • Can you identify—off the top of your head, right now—the most common complaints your company receives?
  • How do these complaints make their way into future products?
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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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