If you are in business, putting your head in the sand doesn't work anymore. You need to be listening and talking to your customers, because if you aren't, they will be doing it with each other, and they won't be happy about it.
As a part of one of my day jobs, I need to read and summarize complaints about a particular automaker that are submitted to the NHTSA website in the US. Reading a couple of hundred of these a month can be pretty soul destroying for an empathic person like me, as they almost always involve financial hardships, and occasionally injuries and even deaths. On the upside however,the process has opened my eyes to just how much communication goes on between a company's customers and how it impacts their view of the company.
The first thing I noticed is that regardless of the differences in the complaints, there was a common element to over 90% of them. Before they take their complaint to the company, or their car to the dealership, customers are searching online about their problems, and are discussing them with other customers. I also noticed something else.
Almost without exception, the customer was more upset with the service they received, and the lack of respect and response shown to them by the company than they were by the actual problem with the vehicle.
Similar to what I said in earlier post, they were happy to accept problems if the service and support was backing it up. But outraged with even minor issues when they felt that the service was lacking.
A common tactic of big companies, even today, is to answer any problem with the line "This is the first time we have heard of this issue" and then try to turn the issue back onto the customer, because if they are the first to have the problem then it can't possibly be the company's fault can it.
But this tactic only works when customers rely on the company as the sole source of their information. Which is no longer the case, as customers can now find each other as easily as a Google search.
Telling a customer that they are the first one with a problem, when they have already spoken to dozens, hundreds or even thousands of others with the same problem, makes the company look incompetent and ignorant at best, and deliberately deceptive at worst.
Gone are the days that a customer can be buried and shooed out the door quietly. Now, everything that you do or say to a customer can, and likely will, end up on a website somewhere and there is not a damn thing you can do about it.
In fact, attempting to do something about it is even worse. Companies that have tried to bury dirty secrets recently have found that they only make them more popular and spread them farther and faster.
I know this sounds dramatic, but luckily there is one thing you can do, and that is to give your customers a truly free and open area where they can be heard. Then you have to actually listen to them, even if you don't do what they ask, simply hearing a customer out without banning, rebuking, silencing, ignoring or insulting them, will often be enough to get their respect back.
Why should you setup the area? Because if your dirty laundry is going to get out, it looks a lot better hanging up in your own yard, than in a pile on your neighbors lawn.
The hardest part for business owners, is to not control to conversation and try to hide or erase any negative press. This is important, because once you start attacking and silencing unhappy customers, they will take the conversation elsewhere, and once it does, it will get uglier and uglier and hurt your business more and more.
So the next time you engage in a conversation with a customer, don't assume that they are unaware of your dirty secrets, as the chances are that they know a lot more than you realize they do, and setup an official forum or some other open support area as soon as you can, so at least you know what your customers are talking about, whether it is bad or good.