Stop Waiting For Bad News

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I know I’m dim, but I don’t understand all the blather about bad news or customer complaints being the chance for brands to earn trust. I think it’s the opposite of how you should look at things; trust comes from a shared understanding before bad things happen.

Problems aren’t exceptions. They’re failings of systems or processes, whether truly unpredictable or a result of management decisions to reduce the performance tolerances of products or services (materials that don’t last, electronics that burn out, not enough staffing at restaurants or on airplanes, etc.). Either way, problems are the outcome of business strategy choices, not what happens in spite of them.

So complaints on Twitter don’t tell you anything new, or reveal any truth you shouldn’t have already known. If anything, they give an imperfect view on the implications of your strategy choices, since you never know how many problems aren’t reported. Rushing to publicly address those complaints is somewhat dishonest, in that it risks substituting attention to occasional squeaky wheels for consistently addressing everyone’s issues and needs. Therefore, the rationale that this results in greater trust, not to mention the positive publicity said satisfied wheel generates having any benefit, is faulty.

Every brand fixes problems these days, just like every brand makes decisions to allow for them to occur in the first place. Trust results from a shared understanding of the relationship between a business and its customers. It comes from brands doing a great job of setting expectations and then fulfilling them. It’s an everyday thing, not a special occasion.

Instead of waiting for bad news to prompt herculean effort (or even minor steps outside of the norm), brands should spend more time and effort communicating the facts of  performance, benefits, and service…and making sure that there’s a truthful understanding among customers about what they will and will not get for their money. Doing this well means less complaints that could have been predictable, and more tolerance for the rare surprise shortcomings if and when they occur.

Trust doesn’t emerge from exceptions but from the daily conduct of a business. Don’t tell your customers what you’ll do for them if they complain loudly enough. Tell them what you do for them every moment of every day. Openly. Honestly. Truthfully.

This strategy has some significant implications for how you spend your marketing budget, most notably that you need to reorient your brand strategy from one of promotion (or education or engagement, or whatever you call it) to understanding. You can still use all that funny and sexy creative that your agency gives you, and dream of people caring about it, differentiating you with it, and having a relationship based on it. None of that stuff is real but old habits die hard.

But you really don’t want that stuff to work (so be thankful that it does so only imperfectly). Relationships based on imaged attributes and benefits are destined to disappoint. Real life will always fall short of the fantasies of branding. It’s not OK if your customers have expectations for your brand that aren’t based in reality; reality will catch up with them, and with you, which will mean complaints on Twitter, and lots more dissatisfied people from whom you will never hear.

What you should do instead is make sure your customers really know what they’re getting. Like for real. Southwest does it, so when its customers book travel and ride its planes, they know what they’re getting. That’s why it can use Twitter far more for promoting info than it does replying to complaints. Same goes for Amazon and what its customers get (or don’t get) when they shop the site. It works the same for luxury brands as it does for commodity offerings. Understanding isn’t always happy or wholly satisfying, but it’s the basis of any respectful, mature relationship.

The measure of your brand isn’t how you respond to exceptions, but how you perform as a rule. Stop waiting for bad news to make good on your customer relationships.

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