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How to Deal with Negative Customer Feedback

June 01, 2016

The customer experience team should monitor a broad set of inputs to ensure that negative feedback is captured and addressed

Customers who provide negative feedback are called detractors, and their input, if made public, can deter others from patronizing a business. When an unhappy customer provides negative feedback via a survey, on social media, or through a customer-facing support team, organizations tend to react defensively. If an organization is dedicated to improving customer experience, it must have a process for capturing, analyzing, addressing and integrating negative customer feedback into business planning and operations. In this issue of SiriusPerspectives, we outline a five-step process for dealing with negative customer feedback.

Any customer who takes the time to provide feedback, even if it’s negative, is making a donation to the organization’s cause – how it does business, how its product works, how its brand is perceived and how its employees interact with customers. An individual who takes the time to provide feedback cares enough to seek a resolution or improvement. Keep in mind that for every person who gives an organization this gift, there are likely many more who feel similarly but are not as generous with their time. The power of detractors is less about that one person than it is about the larger group she or he represents.

The following steps comprise a proven approach for addressing negative feedback and can be applied by an organization of any size, industry or region. Note that not every detractor needs to be included in every step.

Negative Customer Feedback

Step One: Acknowledge

Respond to feedback within a short period of time (ideally one business day or less). Response time should be documented and tracked based on a service-level agreement (SLA) with teams responsible for acknowledging the customer (generally the customer support or customer success team); track responses in a ticketing or action-capturing system. Respectfully acknowledge the feedback, striving to respond in the same communication channel in which the feedback was submitted (e.g. email, social media, phone call), and allow the customer to explain what led to the negative experience. (Feedback that is strongly negative or time critical, regardless of how it was submitted, may warrant a phone call.) The details should be documented and mirrored back to the customer verbally or in writing. During this step, it is more important to respond quickly than to begin an exhaustive research process. Not every complaint warrants a process redesign, and not every suggestion can be accommodated. However, communication that is prompt, thorough and open demonstrates that customer satisfaction matters to the organization. This provides the possibility of turning a negative comment into a positive opportunity.

Step Two: Engage

Collect as much information as possible to ensure a clear understanding of what went wrong, including the details about the situation provided by the people involved. At this stage, it is important to understand account details, account history and available information about the individual providing the feedback in order to formulate a strategy for engagement. For large or strategic accounts, or for contacts who are critical to a relationship, a full cross-functional remediation plan may be in order. Note that the intent is an improvement process, not an assignment of blame – therefore, avoid finger-pointing. At a minimum, develop a list of engagement opportunities (e.g. user groups, advisory boards, online communities, executive meetings, event invitations or passes) that can be offered to the detractor in order to leverage the work being done on his or her behalf and provide opportunities for him or her to continue to provide input. This step also may result in the documentation of new use cases or serve as the basis for a case study focused on a customer turnaround or other positive outcome.=

Step Three: Make Corrections


Evaluate the detractor’s feedback to determine whether changes to business processes, procedures or personnel are needed. Such decisions are not made based on one complaint or detractor, so regularly analyze and report on feedback repository or issue management data. In addition, teams composed of frontline functions (e.g. customer service, customer success, sales), management and executives should work together to ensure that detractors are addressed, investments and corrective actions are prioritized by degree of customer impact, and corrections are aligned with the organization’s focus on customer-centricity as a business strategy. Before rolling out detractor-initiated corrections, consider a pilot that identifies detractors who are willing to become more deeply involved with the organization.

Four: Communicate

In order to fully remediate negative feedback, keep customers apprised – in the same manner in which they submitted their feedback – on what is being done with it. Depending on the severity of the negative feedback and the strategic value of the account or contact, this step may be as easy as closing a ticket with the customer’s permission or as complex as long-term involvement of cross-functional escalation and process teams. As in other steps, details must be captured in an issue management system that is widely accessible to all of those involved (e.g. sales, support, customer success, marketing). Make sure the customer sets the desired frequency of communication regarding the issue or any projects put in place to address his or her concern. If the detractor’s concern fits into a common category (e.g. didn’t know about product functionality, needed further education, was using a use case that wasn’t fully documented yet), consider integrating the detractor into appropriate nurture campaigns being executed by the customer success or retention marketing functions.

Five: Validate

In this final step, the customer agrees that his or her concern has been addressed and resolved. To create visibility around customer feedback results, practitioners should capture the details of more complex situations that highlight how problems are solved and demonstrate how the changes put in place are working. In the spirit of “You spoke, we listened,” consider maintaining a community of former detractors who agree to serve as the final gatekeepers who confirm that customers have been heard and their feedback has been acted upon. Include selected detractors on customer advisory boards. This is also an opportunity to make adjustments to new processes, correct misconceptions and approve the results of pilots for broader rollout. These validated initiatives and turnaround stories can illustrate the story of customer-centricity in survey invitations (to encourage participation), face-to-face meetings, user group sessions and annual reports.

The Sirius Decision

New technologies are evolving that allow customer experience teams to use predictive models to identify customers who are not providing direct feedback but have the same characteristics as those who are. This enables practitioners to more deeply analyze the customer base and the impact that detractors are having on the business as a whole, and to target communications more specifically and effectively to get ahead of detractors acting on their dissatisfaction. Currently used in demand creation and customer acquisition programs, predictive marketing technologies can reinforce the efforts of customer experience to retain existing customers, deepen relationships, increase customer loyalty and improve customer lifetime value.