In the ebook Love Your Angriest Customers, I shared my thoughts on the right and the wrong way of dealing with customer anger. With so much at stake, it’s vital to react to angry customers in a smart and constructive manner. And yet, as we’ve seen time and time again, so many major companies do the exact opposite.
Mike Jeffries, the former Abercrombie & Fitch CEO, famously bungled his response to customer outrage. In 2013, an article in Salon pointed out how Abercrombie doesn’t carry plus-sized clothes for women, sparking a minor controversy that worsened when a business analyst observed how Jeffries “doesn’t want larger people shopping in his store.” As customer anger built online, Jeffries chose to remain silent. In the absence of any direct response, an old interview re-emerged, in which Jeffries admitted the brand goes after the “cool kids." "Are we exclusionary? Absolutely," he said. Jeffries’ response substantially damaged the brand.
Celebrities, like Kirstie Alley, said they wouldn’t let their kids shop at A&F. “I don’t care if A&F sells above size 10. The point is their CEO took a stand against the ‘coolness’ of ‘above size 10 kids’ #standdownCEO,” Alley tweeted. A college student started a controversial “Fitch the Homeless” campaign, which itself went viral, proposing to undermine Jeffries’ target “cool kids” demographic by giving Abercrombie & Fitch clothing to homeless people. The result of all this anger: the company’s stock price took a nose-dive and Jeffries was ousted as CEO in December 2014.
I don't care if A&F sells above size 10. The point is their CEO took a stand against the "coolness" of "above size 10 kids" #standdownCEO
— Kirstie Alley (@kirstiealley) May 15, 2013
Jeffries is far from the only leader of a company ousted after mishandling an angry customer. The Lululemon chairman Chip Wilson made a similar mistake. Over a period of weeks in 2013, angry customers returned Lululemon yoga pants, complaining they were too sheer. Instead of responding immediately to concerns about see-through pants, employees challenged customers to put the pants on in order to prove they were transparent. When Wilson finally commented on the controversy, he made things worse by appearing to blame customers for the troubled product. “They don’t work for some women’s bodies,” he said. “It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time, how much they use it.”
After that comment sparked outrage, Wilson posted an online video mea culpa in which he attempted to explain himself. In the video he apologized to his employees—not to his customers or to the women he’d offended. The satirist Stephen Colbert compared the pseudo-apology to “lifting your leg to pee on customers and then blaming them for being wet.” The episode was a display of a failure to listen to customers. Wilson dismissed their concerns and ultimately forgot who is the most important person in the company: the customer. Just as happened at Abercrombie, the company’s stock plummeted and Wilson was forced out as chairman of the board.
These examples illustrate four common mistakes companies make when handling customer complaints:
- Ignoring anger. Refusing to engage makes you appear aloof and disinterested.
- Dismissing concerns. This damages your reputation and allow a problem to fester.
- Forgetting that the customer is your priority. Your company has one reason for being: to provide value to a customer. If you don’t, you’ll be out of business.
- Digging in your heels. It’s tempting to adopt a bunker mentality when facing a growing chorus of seemingly out-of-proportion public outrage. Doing so can only make things worse, and can make it harder to respond constructively in the future.
A confrontation with angry customers doesn’t have to end in disaster. The right approach involves listening to customer complaints, giving real consideration to their suggestions, knowing the customer and putting anger into context, and finally acting on changes rather than delaying.