Facing angry customers on social media? Here’s how to de-escalate the hate

CHICAGO — Social media is a great way for businesses and brands to directly interact with the public, but that also means dealing with some not-so-happy customers from time to time. Business managers often struggle with how best to respond to angry customers and comments online, but new collaborative research is here to help.

After investigating this delicate topic, a team of international scientists report using language that signals both attentive listening and empathy are key to de-escalating tense online customer interactions.

According to the latest Customer Rage Study from February 2020, the amount of consumers who prefer to register their complaints online instead of over the phone or in-person has tripled over just the prior three years. Moreover, that same study tells us 48 percent of U.S. consumers frequently turn to social media to get a sense of other people’s experiences with products and services.

So, while it’s clear that social media holds serious swaying power over consumers, it’s also apparent that most brands are failing miserably at social media interactions. Less than one third of respondents reported feeling satisfied with service recoveries and a full two-thirds expressed anger after a failure.

It’s easy to be anonymous online, which means many users feel more comfortable expressing themselves with angry and colorful language, making it even harder for many firms to offer effective responses to dissatisfied customers.

What to do when angry customers leave harsh complaints on social media

Some say most online complaints should simply be ignored, but recent research indicates businesses should attempt to address public complaints in order to limit the possible detrimental effects on potential and current customers. That said, it’s been unclear which approach is the best way to de-escalate angry customers while simultaneously promoting a feeling of gratitude in the person who originally made the complaint.

Stressed, upset millennial sitting at work computer
It can be difficult to respond with a cool head when customers leave angry comments on social media, but active listening and empathy can do a world of repair. (© WavebreakMediaMicro – stock.adobe.com)

Researchers used natural language processing on real social media complaints, in conjunction with a number of controlled experiments, in an attempt to answer these questions. That process led to the discovery of two effective response strategies companies should use to both de-escalate negative arousal and enhance costumer gratitude on social media: active listening and empathy.

More specifically, active listening means paying attention to customers’ complaints and then actively demonstrating that attentiveness while following up by repeating, paraphrasing, or adapting the language to the customer. Empathy, on the other hand, refers to connecting on an emotional level with angry customers. This is usually accomplished by indicating understanding of their feelings and perspective via explicit expressions of validation and affirmation.

So, in a text-based interaction, active listening would encompass the style of the response (linguistic style matching), while empathy would be more related to the content of the response (using empathetic words).

Study authors report that when companies make use of active listening and empathy while responding to angry customers online, it evokes gratitude – even if the original complaint hasn’t been solved yet.

“Our three field studies show that increasing active listening by 1% increases the probability of customer gratitude by up to 14% and increasing empathy by 1% increases the probability of customer gratitude by up to 90%. Thus, compared to active listening, empathy is a stronger lever to enhance desired outcomes,” the study reads. “Since social media interactions are often driven by high arousal and negative emotions, we hope our findings not only change the way companies deal with angry customers, but also make interaction partners more receptive to each other’s perspective and have better social media conversations.

Researchers from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Dartmouth College, Babson College, and LUISS University collaborated on this project.

The study is published in the Journal of Marketing.