Previously I posted about the rise of support activism and negative word of mouth. There are a several things a company can do to mitigate the risks of support activism and negative word of mouth.

Improve the Product Quality

In the past, all those inconveniences that didn’t actually raise warranty costs (because they didn’t result in a support call), even if they affected the user experience, got ignored by companies. That has to change. Not only does product quality simply need to improve across the board, but the prioritization criteria of customer issues has to change as well. What is most important to fix is what your customers say is most important to fix. And that is not necessarily the same as what causes your customers to call.
Here’s an example from the old days of VHS players: If a customer’s VHS player couldn’t play tapes, that would generate a support phone call or a product return. But if a customer’s VHS player was too hard to program and sat blinking 12:00 all day, they might not call support or return it. They might just live with blinking lights flashing at them all day long, creating a lingering dissatisfier.
People view support calls as an absolute last resort. And since the correct time and the ability to record programs on a timer isn’t crucial, they’ll live without those capabilities. They’ll live without them, but they’ll always be pissed: “I bought product X, and it just doesn’t work.”
Similarly, what is most satisfying about a product may not be what is most important about it. It is most important that my car start when I need to use it, but the six speed manual transmission is what is most satisfying about it. (These are the kind of subtle nuances you’ll learn about reading automotive forums on the web, but which are hard to uncover in traditional customer research.)

Address Support Issues Where They Arise

If a product issue shows up on a blog, in most cases, the best approach is to post a comment on that blog as a response, explaining how to address the issue. You will instantly convert the negative customer experience into an overwhelmingly positive support experience: “Wow, the company found my blog and cared enough about me to post a response for how to fix the problem.” They will tell that story to everyone they talk to that day or week, and any time your company comes up in conversation, they’ll relate that story. You’ll be the company that cares enough to go out and find problems. Here’s a secret: this is what is already happening in the open source movement, and it’s a major reason why open source users and developers are so passionate about open source. The developers and maintainers of a project are not just suppliers of technology, but participants in the community that surrounds them. So they are active on blogs, and discussion forums, and in wikis. And when they see someone having a problem, they step in.

Addressing Issues Where They Arise To Defuse Viral Explosions

The second thing that happens when you address support issues where they arise is that you instantly defuse the viral explosion of the original negative experience: before the original complaint can make it around the blogosphere, your very visible assistance and resolution of the problem, right there alongside the original post, will completely change the nature of what is being shared. It’s no long a bit of sensationalism or inflammatory material, instead it is just a problem and a resolution. It’s not very sexy, and it won’t get shared nearly as widely as the negative-only experience would have.

Alternatives to addressing it this way are far less effective

The alternative methods to address a bad experience shared via the blogosphere are far less effective. A customer shares a bad experience, and the company takes one of these alternative actions:

  1. Contacts the customer directly via email to share a resolution to the problem.
  2. Carefully considers the problem, consults the Legal department, PR department, crafts a response, runs the response by Legal and PR, and then posts the response, but only after 2,000 people have seen and linked to the original issue.
  3. Takes the posting of the issue as a call to action to get the issue resolved in the product, or to get better documentation on the companies web site.

All of these alternatives are better than no action at all, but they miss the biggest opportunities: to give support in a visible way that helps not just the original people who had the issue, but also everyone else who was searching for an answer to the same problem and saw the the issue after it was posted, and to defuse any negative viral explosion that occurs from the original posting. It’s like fighting a forest fire: a bucket of water applied early on in exactly the right place can put out a smoldering campfire. The same bucket of water will have no material effect when the fire is an acre in size or when it isn’t put right on the fire.

But if posting on the blog isn’t an option because the legal department or PR department have previously rules against that kind of activity, the next best course of action is usually to email the customer directly, because this can be done the quickest. The customer may post about it the positive experience, which is a bonus.
Posting on small blogs vs. posting on product review sites
All of this holds true for product review sites as well as blogs, with one crucial difference. When a big company takes the time to post on a small blog, most people will interpret the action as really caring about the customer. When a big company posts on a product review site used by millions of people, most of those people will interpret the action as self-serving: the company is just there to defend themselves. In Web 2.0 research, people reported that one of the reasons they distrust company websites is because the information is biased: the company only ever describes their own products in glowing terms (as opposed to the more neutral treatment they would get by someone without a vested interest on a product review site, discussion forum, Wikipedia, etc.). This means that small, authentic companies can probably post on a product review site and get taken at face value, but a big corporation needs to really build credibility in the social media space before their post on a product review site will be acceptable.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this topic.