Shareware Beach

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Complaining Culture

Filed under: Life & The Universe — Jan @ 19:59

I just unsubscribed from a mailing list I’d been receiving for many years, though I read it with much less interest lately. The list was intended as a place where customers using a particular service could discuss their experiences. But lately all that people were doing was complain. Sure, the service has experienced some hiccups lately, and many of the complaints stemmed from actual grievances. But those problems weren’t the end of the world, or I would have stopped using the service long ago, rather than just unsubscribing from the mailing list. It seems that the small group of regular posters the list had left, had turned complaining into some sort of culture.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m the last person who’ll suffer bad service quietly. If I’m having a problem with your product or service, you’ll hear from me. I’ll gather up enough evidence to explain the problem clearly and convincingly. If I can, I’ll even point out my preferred solution. It’ll be a long email. But it’ll be polite and factual.

Some of the bug reports for my own software include apologies for bearing the bad news. Don’t apologize. You’re doing me a favor by pointing out problems, particularly if you include step-by-step instructions to reproduce it. Since we released the software with the bug, it’s extremely likely we simply didn’t know about it, or can’t reproduce it. Just Great Software doesn’t include bugs.

While I consider it very generous if somebody takes the time to point out problems in a helpful matter, pure complaining is a whole different story. If you report a problem on a mailing list or forum, and nobody seems to be doing anything about it, it’s easy to start complaining and blaming people for not caring. But it doesn’t help. If you’re right that those responsible are unwilling or incapable of fixing the problem, complaining is a waste of time. Evaluate your options and decide whether living with the problem or moving on to a competitor is the least costly solution. But if you’re wrong, continuing to cry “Wolf!”, even if it’s staring you in the face, isn’t going to make anybody more sympathetic to your cause. There’s probably a whole pack of wolves elsewhere that needs to be dealt with more urgently.

Dealing with complainers, particularly those with genuine problems that people can identify with, is not always easy. If communication is one-on-one, like tech support email, terminating the relationship with a full refund may be cheaper in the long run. You have to be careful, though, as complainers like to spread the word. Better take the blame, even if the customer is unreasonable, than to give the impression you’re simply trying to put a lid on the customer’s nose.

Forums and mailing lists is where it gets tricky. Once somebody starts complaining about a genuine issue, other unhappy people are likely to chime in. And it can snowball from there, as it did with the mailing list I unsubscribed from. In most cultures, there’s quite a bit of social pressure not to be the fingerpointer or the one to cast the first stone. When the stones are flying around already, it’s much easier to chime in. Complaints have to be nipped in the bud.

Having a track record of solving problems quickly and adequately is a tremendous asset when dealing with complainers. It’ll make your loyal customers far more likely to chime in and ask the complainer to take a deep breath. They’ll also be far more effective at it than you could ever hope to be. If the customer is complaining to begin with (as opposed to politely pointing out an issue), they will likely see your promises as cheap lies anyway. But when others point out that you’ve already earned their trust many times, you may not even have to respond at all.

Building up such customer goodwill is extremely important when you do your business in the open. Starting a forum is trivial. Creating a real community is hard. That’s why I’ve never rushed with setting up forums for my own products. (Expect further rollout later this year.)

If somebody simply can’t be pleased, it’s best to resort to what the complainer will likely call censorship. But it’s not. Censorship is when you tell people what they can and can’t say, period. Telling people what they can and can’t say in your very own forum is simply good housekeeping. They can still say whatever they want. They just can’t do so on your forum. As long as you don’t go overboard with it, your loyal customers will be happy you keep the house in good order. Then they can go on sharing tips and techniques how to get the most out of your product, and even how to work around problems, without having complainers spoil the party.

Because when complaints become to numerous, the nice people will eventually start to leave, leaving you with just the complainers. And that’s not why you set up the forums to begin with. Do what you can to foster a positive culture on your forum. Forums don’t run themselves.

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