Assholes to Advocates (Or, How to Create an Emotionally-Intelligent Customer Feedback System)

By Amy Burritt, Vice President of Communications

Technically, calling customers “assholes” is taboo — not only because it isn’t nice, but also because, in many cases, it’s a misnomer. Most customers don’t set out to be jerks, but a negative experience can bring out the worst in anyone, particularly when it comes to air travel. In marketing, we call those who are actively negative toward our brands “detractors.” Our goal is to turn them into advocates.

There will always be people who are unwilling or unable to change, and because we can’t force people to become what we want them to be (heck, I can barely bring about change in my own self!), we’re going to focus instead on the set of customers whose are willing and able to be converted to advocates. We’ll call them “open minded customers” or, because we love acronyms, “OMCs.”

The interesting thing about OMCs is that while they may be willing and able to be moved from the “detractor” column to the “advocate” column, they’re not going to move on their own. This is why creating an emotionally-intelligent customer feedback system is so critical; without it, potentially amazing advocates settle into their negative feelings toward your brand and are constantly working against all of your other marketing and PR efforts. Even in this digital age, word of mouth is still the most impactful form of marketing, and that should be the only reason you need to put energy, budget and time into your customer feedback system.

So how do you create an emotionally-intelligent customer feedback system? And what exactly is a “customer feedback system.” In its simplest form, a customer feedback system is made up of two parts: 1) Your customer relaying their feedback to you, and 2) Your response.

If it were depicted visually, it would look something like this:

We’ve identified seven steps you can take to start turning detractors into advocates with an emotionally-intelligent customer feedback system:

1) Provide a welcoming environment in which to share feedback

From the tech-savvy millennial whose smartphone is like another appendage, to the thoughtful retiree who carries a ballpoint pen in his shirt pocket, your customers—in all their many forms—need the chance to share their feedback in the way that is easiest for them. For some, it’s an open-ended textbox on your website, for others it’s a physical comment card or a face-to-face conversation. Create opportunities and invite feedback across all your channels (website, social, in-person) and make it easy for customers to share their thoughts.

PRO-TIP: If you have an online survey, make the first question an open-ended one that just asks them to share any feedback they may have with you. Not only will this give them the chance to share their thoughts, but it can help reduce the influence a recent negative experience may have on their overall ratings in subsequent questions.

2) Manage your own emotional response

Let’s be honest: You’re human too. In a customer service role, it can be difficult to manage your response in any given situation. Recognizing and managing your own emotions will help keep drama at a minimum and allow you to focus on the issue at hand. But don’t confuse “managing emotions” with “shutting off emotions”—the total lack of emotion can work against you just as much as overreaction, not only because of the customer’s perception (have you ever felt like you’re dealing with Robo-Rep?) but also because a moderate amount of empathy can help you more fully appreciate the customer’s perspective, which leads us to step three…

3) Address emotions first and logic second

The best piece of advice I’ve ever received about responding to customer service issues wasn’t about customer service at all—it was about people and emotions. The advice was this: When someone comes to you with an emotional response to a situation (they are tearful, angry, visibly upset, etc.), you must first meet them on an emotional level. Listen, then say something like, “I’m so sorry you’ve experienced this, that sounds very difficult.” Most people are not able to accept or respond positively to any logical problem-solving until they feel that you have heard and understood the emotions they are experiencing. Only after the emotional response has quieted will the door to logical problem-solving be open. Emotions first, logic second.

PRO-TIP: Even if you’re not prepared to take responsibility for the root cause of the customer’s poor experience, it’s still okay to apologize for the experience they’ve had. A statement like, “I’m sorry you’ve had such a poor experience,” doesn’t necessarily imply that you or your organization are at fault – it simply addresses the fact that the customer is unhappy and you recognize it.

4) Identify and isolate the issues

The straw that broke the camel’s back is often the first thing you hear about when a customer comes to you with a complaint, but it’s not always the main issue. In many cases, a series of events have culminated in the most recent experience that has driven them to contact you. Look for cues that indicate a bigger story: phrases like, “Ever since…” or “The first time…” or “Not once has anyone…”—these kinds of statements point to a larger issue that goes further back. Additionally, there may be several issues at work, and if you can identify and isolate them, then you’ll be able to address each one individually.

PRO-TIP: If you’re not sure what the main issue is, try reciting back to the customer what you’re hearing them say—if they’ve miscommunicated or you’ve misunderstood, this gives them the chance to correct the communication and you’ll have a better grasp on the real issue(s). A good statement to keep handy is, “I want to make sure I understand how you feel. I’m hearing you say that [insert your summary of their complaint here]. Is that right?”

5) Change what you can; accept what you can’t

I’m convinced that the Serenity Prayer was written by a customer service representative:

“God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other…”

In customer service, there will always be things you cannot control—a policy you cannot change, another person’s actions you can’t influence, the impact of another organization that is outside your purview—but it doesn’t mean you can’t address them. In many cases, the simple fact that you are bringing the issue to the attention of someone who can affect change is enough to win back some of the goodwill your customer previously felt toward your organization.

6) Follow up

In my experience, this step is where the system often breaks down. If you were unable to make any positive progress in step 5 above, following up with the customer becomes a dreaded to-do item that falls perpetually to the bottom of the list. But this is the step that can be most effective in building trust. We’ve all been on the other end of the customer service process—we’ve submitted a complaint or comment only to be met with crickets. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard peers say, “I just wish they’d get back in touch and tell me whether they could or couldn’t, or just say sorry, we tried.”

PRO-TIP: Transparency is key when it comes to follow up. The more information you can provide, and the more real you can be, the more likely your customer is to accept what you have to say. They may not like the news, but the way you deliver the news can make it easier to receive.

7) Leverage your success stories

More often than not, customer service recovery stories are non-stories. But every now and then, there is a story worth telling—something that shows how a company or organization took a negative experience and turned it into a positive one.

One such story that comes to mind is the woman who lost her wedding ring in a Delta aircraft toilet.

Not every story ends the way this one did, and not every story involves a diamond ring. But many stories carry the same kind of emotional thread that makes a story compelling. And what is a story but a tale of a character who wants something and must overcome challenges to get it? If you can find the emotional thread in your customer service recovery story (yes, now is the time to let your emotions get involved!), you can use that story to help create a culture of customer service.


If you’d like to learn more about creating an emotionally-intelligent customer feedback system, let’s talk! Our team of experts has been improving the customer experience for our clients for years, and we’d love to help you next.

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