“It has become a fairer competition”

Research into customer reviews


What is the best way for a business to react to negative reviews on social media, blogs or personal websites? This question is the focal point of Tom van Laer's thesis, Return of the Narrative, on the basis of which he gained his doctor's title last Friday. “Avoid a business-like response!”

“Myself and my wife were looking forward to our trip to Blackpool but what we encountered at this ‘hotel’ would have shocked even Basil Fawlty. The rooms were disgusting, absolutely filthy. When we complained we were given a quick rebuttal and decided to check out after only one night’s stay, not knowing where we would go (sleeping in a cardboard box on the promenade would have been a step up). NEVER STAY HERE.”

This scathing review, posted on the Tripadvisor review site, referred to the Golden Beach Hotel, which even reached the newspapers at the beginning of this year. The owner had turned another British couple out into the streets when he discovered that these guests had put critical comments online even during their stay.

Of course this is a classic example of how it should not be done. But how should it be done? Not just hotels but all businesses with a client base – not in the last place the banking sector – have had to deal with customer reviews over the past few years. And it took some getting used to. In the pre-Internet era, there was one-way-communication, says management expert Tom van Laer. "Businesses spread sunny advertisements among consumers, who – if they complained at all – only did so to family and friends at the kitchen table or at birthday parties. Today, they pitch to anyone who cares to hear it, on social media, blogs, personal websites, you name it. Therefore it has become a fairer competition."

Initially, from the end of 2007, businesses did not know how to react and so they did nothing. An example was musician Dave Carroll, who looked from the airplane window and saw baggage personnel throwing his band’s music instruments about. When he tried to claim for compensation from United Airlines because one of the guitars was damaged, he was met with a blank refusal. Carroll took revenge with the song United Breaks Guitars, which he put on YouTube. After only two days, it had been viewed 350 thousand times. The airline company veiled itself in silence. "That is stupid,” says Van Laer. "Recent research has shown that especially in the first 24 hours an incident can get completely out of hand."



Little by little, businesses are taking online criticism more seriously and are viewing it more as a complaint, just like they would if it had come in through the call centre. "They are setting up guidelines on how to react and choose a business-like response, based on facts. This is an equally disastrous strategy. Take the Dutch Railway company, for example, which once reacted to blogs in which people expressed their incomprehension and frustration about the delays caused by autumn leaves on the rails. A manager gave a technical explanation of how this could happen, only to be completely taken apart.”

Even though the arguments may be correct, it is not what the consumer wants. "They have just written down all their emotions in a blog or on Facebook, and the last thing they want is business-like arguments. On the contrary, they want an affective response, sympathy, and acknowledgment. A virtual hug, if you like."

The best thing for a business is to apologise. "Whether it is your fault or not, you can always apologise for what that customer went through. Then you can give your view of the matter, in the form of a story, in the same way as the customer has done. Don’t let an official spokesperson do this, someone who is trained in communication skills, but someone from the shop floor, a desk employee, someone who for example can feel truly sorry for what went wrong. These employees are usually not allowed to do this because the PR department wants to stay completely in charge, but research has shown that a number of them do it on the sly."

It is important that the form and the content of the message match. "Consumers are irritated most by a business-like reaction followed by apologies. This causes bad feelings and does not sound convincing. Just like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who says through his lawyer that he is sorry. I think that American congressman Weiner, who inadvertently circulated photographs of his underpants, has gained more trust by grovelling emotionally in front of the cameras."



Van Laer's research also showed that businesses can train their personnel to respond more empathically to complaints. Prior to a training session, he left two word puzzles ‘lying around’ which the test subjects could use to kill time. The employees who filled in the empathic puzzle – with words such as friendship, sympathy, love – appeared to take on a more empathic role towards customers in the following training session and were more prepared to apologise and to help the customer. Their colleagues who did the ‘technical’ puzzle, which included a lot of jargon, took on a harder and more business-like attitude.

Van Laer, who will start as a university lecturer at a grande école in Paris on 1 September, has advised the bank to use a screensaver in which such words as ‘empathy’ and ‘passionate’ float by and not to show share prices. “It is often thought that competitive minds choose a competitive environment such as the bank. I think it is the other way around, that people become competitive because of the jargon that is being used.”


Maurice Timmermans

Return of the Narrative, by Tom van Laer. Boekenbent publisher. ISBN: 978-90-8570-753-0

“It has become a fairer competition”
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