5 ways to turn customer complaints into  incremental sales

By Riley Gibson, CEO of Napkin Labs


The spread of social media has given consumers incredible power to influence their network’s perceptions of a brand. One bad experience, one rude server, one wrong order and an entire online network can be influenced. Nothing is an isolated incident anymore, and this problem is especially rampant for limited-service restaurants, where complaints over social media are particularly rampant. While complaints can sound damaging, they also represent an opportunity for QSRs and fast casuals to bake social deeper into the fabric of their organization and become more nimble.

So, how can limited-service restaurants turn complaints into innovation and loyalty?

1: Make social a layer not a department. It is amazing how many brands create social as a department and leave them isolated. Social is becoming the preferred interface for consumers and brands to interact around service, feedback and issues - not just ads, so isolating social limits its impact. In fact, McKinsey projects that in the next three years 47 percent of business will have made social their primary customer touch point (Demystifying Social Media, April 2012). Only a fraction of the value that comes from social media is about promotion and marketing in the traditional sense. To extract greater value in the form of insights, innovation, customer service and advocacy the social media team needs to be tied directly and work very closely with a wide range of departments. If social teams remain isolated, then they are the greatest window into the consumer without any ability to act.

2: Listen smarter. Listening tools are the critical “top of the funnel” for real-time insights. Listening tools help identify trends around positive and negative sentiment. The results from listening data can help shape priorities for innovation, quality control, and customer service. Most quick serves have this layer in place, but it is essential that this data is shared deep within the organization. (Social Media Today: For Dunkin’ Donuts the World of Social Media Runs on ROI, Nov. 2011). While listening is a key ingredient, it is also narrow in terms of its actionability, so it is only the first step. One of the reasons is that social listening only captures the extremes of complaints and praise. It is also passive, so cause and effect can become confused. Listening is a foundational piece of the puzzle, but it is only the beginning when it comes to turning complaints into innovation.

3: Collaborate with customers at scale to solve problems. With the top of the engagement funnel handled, there is a critical new layer that is emerging – a more focused collaborative layer. A social layer that picks up where listening leaves off and enables brands to create and host collaborative conversations with their social networks as a whole (or even with more targeted sub-segments). It is the more proactive and focused collaborative layer that is underdeveloped for most brands and the one that drives the most value for insights and innovation teams. For example, Domino's Pizza connected listening to a more proactive and collaborative social platform called the Think Oven. They created tools within their Facebook page to run projects on a mass scale and capture ideas and insights in a more focused manner than listening can provide. The projects they posted weren’t always sexy either. One of their projects was asking customers how they could improve their online ordering process, which captured thousands of ideas.

This collaborative layer is key for several reasons:

  • It provides a more constructive outlet and turns complaints into more constructive outlets. 
  • It allows quick serves to push beyond passive listening and actually ask questions and collect ideas around strategically important or aligned questions. 
  • It helps customers see what is being shared as feedback and complaints from other customers. It is as much a peer-to-peer network to share company initiatives, answer questions as it is a creative outlet and resource for a brand.

4: Leverage social networks to propagate news about changes. By creating more collaborative forums for customers to share feedback and ideas, and for companies to run challenges, companies can turn complaints into more proactive and targeted insights. These become the foundation for internal innovation and customer experience projects to make incremental improvements. The value of involving customers more closely in sharing ideas and feedback does not end with insights. The true advantage is that as new changes get made, an existing network of engaged customers is already built to help share the news.

Starbucks has a section in Mystarbucksidea.com that documents the ideas they implement, and their community naturally shares this because they had a hand in shaping that change. In this system, social, innovation and grassroots marketing are working together to listen, engage, and learn from customers and then leveraging those same networks to amplify new products or changes inspired by customer feedback.

5: (Future) Connect social feedback and collaboration with loyalty programs. We often think of loyalty as just repeated purchases, but with the proliferation of social, the definition of loyalty has the opportunity to grow far beyond the purchase. Referring a friend, providing an idea that helps the company, providing feedback that leads to small changes — all of these actions that customers take provide value to restaurants. As we get more advanced in social, we can connect feedback, advocacy and idea platforms with loyalty programs.

Not only does this begin to incent more brand engagement, but can begin to provide rich data about customers and provide new avenues for highly targeted deals that drive revenue. Imagine if I shared feedback or added a complaint to starbucks facebook page at 1 a.m., and I got back a thank you for sharing my thoughts along with a free Venti Late because I am up late.

By connecting listening, more collaborative outlets for complaints, and loyalty programs that value feedback — QSRS and fast casual restaurants can easily turn the dread of complaints on social media into a major driver of brand affinity, innovation and sales.

Read more about customer experience.

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