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Active listening and empathy prevents escalation on social media

5 September 2022
Flight delayed? Newspaper not delivered again? Ordered shoes online but still haven't received them? When faced with poor service, customers are quick to express their frustration and anger openly on social media. The key to de-escalation lies in two strategies that are common advice for face-to-face conversations but largely neglected on social media: active listening and showing empathy, says marketing researcher Dennis Herhausen.

Angry customers are bad for business. Sometimes their anger is justified, sometimes not. Whereas in the past the customer would write an angry letter to the company or call them via the customer service department, the current trend is to share annoyances and complaints about poor service online. 

Customer gratitude
Of course, there have been a number of studies in the past that have provide insights into how companies can optimize their customer service. Nevertheless, many companies are still struggling with how to handle complaints through social media the best way possible without damaging their reputation. That's not so easy, concludes Herhausen. "Within the realm of social media, people feel relatively anonymous, which can lead to rather expressive complaints. Failure to de-escalate t expressed anger can be a major reason that many recovery efforts are unsuccessful."

Currently, many companies instruct their customer service departments to resolve complaints immediately, preferably within five minutes (because time is money). Understandable, says Herhausen, but not feasible for every angry message a company receives on social media. Some may be unjustified, some may need to be verified internally or externally which takes time. The public nature of the complaint makes appropriate reactions even more challenging. Thus, companies should take into account an often overlooked aspect that is crucial to a successful settlement: customer gratitude, the initial reaction on the very first signal you send to customers about how you are handling the complaint. 

Active listening and empathy
Using large-scale data collection on Facebook and Twitter, Herhausen and his international colleagues have concluded that active listening and empathy are the keys to de-escalation. They therefore recommend that webcare employees, when responding to social media complaints, match the language style of the customer to give the impression that the complaint is understood and to show some good will, combined with using empathetic words to signal further care for the customer’s situation.

According to the marketing researchers, if customers indicate that they are happy that the web employees take their complaints seriously (the so-called customer gratitude), it is easier to tempt them to exchange the public channel for a private one (a direct message) or to ask them to call a specific customer service number. Out of sight of all the participants on the social media channel, the webcare employee can then quietly handle the complaint one-on-one with the customer in a satisfied manner. This research, which is one of the first studies to use social media data in this context, shows that with this method, customers are 14% more satisfied when active listening is used and 90% more satisfied when the webcare agents appear empathetic. 

Herhausen: "Ultimately, you want to maintain the connection with the customer and make sure he or she does not damage your company reputation. How you as an employee react to the angry customer is therefore extremely important. With our method, you are more likely not only to deescalate the conversation on social media but also to increase your customer satisfaction." 

Read more about the research Complaint De-escalation Strategies on Social Media.