Strategies for handling customer feedback

Peter Seebach ([ for handling customer feedback] Freelance writer 3 July 2003

Abstract: If your Web site doesn't include a feedback mechanism, it probably should. In this month's Cranky User column, Peter explains the importance of listening to the customer, and helps you develop strategies for dealing with the different types of feedback you will receive.

One of the great mysteries of writing a column is that, for a columnist, hate mail can be a sign of success. You see, newspapers and Web sites run articles based on readership. And it's a rule of journalism that people love conflict -- just as long as it's nice and safe and doesn't really affect them that much. So a columnist whose ideas are controversial, or even unpopular, may actually have a substantial readership.

When I'm writing, I'm always a little tempted to run out on a limb and say something really striking, just to get people to write back. When I get a nasty message saying I'm obviously too stupid to own a computer, I know that my article is probably getting lots of hits.

While this tactic works out okay for some columnists, it's not the best way to run a commercial Web site. Whereas an inflammatory writer can get away with angering her readership week after week (if she does it artfully), a Web site doesn't function by the same rules.

When a user sends feedback about your site to you, he's telling you how the site made him feel. If the site made him mad -- because its content was difficult to access, or its functions didn't work the way they were supposed to -- he's not likely to come back for more. If all you want from your site is to generate a lot of hits, that might be okay. He'll tell all his friends about your horrible site and you'll get a run of curious visitors. But if your site is supposed to be an interface for building business relationships, then you need to take user feedback more seriously.

Why Web forms aren't enough

Many sites use Web forms for feedback. Easy to make, not too hard to manage; they're popular with programmers. But they're not all that popular with users, and for good reason.

For example, I once found a hosting company that wouldn't accept spam reports by e-mail, only by a Web form. That form had a 254-character limit, which isn't enough space to provide any real information. When I saw how little interest the company had in receiving useful information from its users (such as the kind that could be used to do something about a spammer) I, along with a number of other people, added its name to my spam filter.

Not only do Web forms often limit the amount (or type) of information a user can send, but they're also impossible to track. If I send you a message through a Web form, I don't get to keep a copy. If I use my mail client I do get to keep a copy. Keeping a copy is the way I remind myself that I sent a message, and when I sent it. It's one of the ways I track the timeliness of the response. If your feedback system is set up in such a way that I can't track your response time, I'm going to assume it must be pretty bad.

Can I get a number?

You can start improving your site's feedback setup (and thus its usability, and thus, perhaps, its reputation) by providing good contact information. I know I keep going on about this, but that's because it keeps being a problem. The importance of providing contact information on your Web site cannot be overstated. A user who wants to reach you should be able to do so, by phone or e-mail, immediately.

If you do provide a phone number, make sure it's useful. Many Web sites provide sketchy phone contact at best, which often results in endless phone-tag for the customer. Nothing is more frustrating than calling department after department in search of someone who will take responsibility for your complaint. Preferably, your site should list a single number that sends the user to a central directory. From there, he can be directed to the person responsible for his specific concern.

Making yourself inaccessible to your customers is a surefire way to convince them that their needs and opinions aren't important to you. If you don't actually care what your users think, well, you're entitled to that. And your users are entitled to take their business elsewhere. And they will.

Different types of feedback

Once you've put in a system for receiving feedback, the next step is dealing with it. If your site is any good, you will receive at least some positive feedback from users. But you should be prepared for negative feedback, since that's what most users have in mind when they send you an e-mail, or pick up the phone. Negative feedback has roughly two styles: minor complaints and rants. If you're smart, you'll cherish the former and learn to deal professionally with the latter.

Users who make minor complaints aren't mad enough to really rant at you, but they still care enough to tell you what's wrong with your site and why you should fix it. Never make the mistake of disregarding this type of feedback by saying, "It's just one guy." For every person that bothers to write in, hundreds more didn't care enough to make the effort. It's not just one guy; it's hundreds, and one of them -- this one -- cared enough to let you know.

If you find yourself addressing the same minor complaint over and over again, it may not be so minor after all. Look more closely at the problem and see if you can discover its root.

The first thing to know about an angry customer is this: If she didn't care about your product she wouldn't be angry. The angriest people aren't the ones who don't care what you do, or how well you do it; they're the ones who expected better of you, somehow.

If you know that a customer's anger is based on her appreciation of your product, then you can take her complaint more seriously. And, better still, if you take the time to handle the complaint -- and actually do something about it -- you may actually win back her loyalty; in fact, you may even double it.

Of course, sometimes angry customers are just angry people. Even in these cases, though, something had to trigger that outburst. And whatever it is, it may be worth fixing. "It's only a minor annoyance" is a poor defense; why annoy your customers at all?

Response strategies

The key to resolving customer complaints is taking them seriously. Whether it's fair or not, when a customer complains it means he or she is disappointed in your product. If your starting assumption is that the customer's complaint is valid then your next move is obvious: You apologize.

Once you've made an apology, it's important to follow through. Fixing minor complaints is usually fairly easy, and gradually improves the quality of your site. If a user can't find something on your site, add a new link to the navigation bar. If a user has misunderstood the wording on one of your pages, change it to be more clear. This kind of polish can make a big difference in the overall experience of your site, even for all those users out there who would never bother to complain.

One of the worst things you can do is make a customer feel that his complaint has not been heard. For example, you never want to say to a customer, "Well, that's company policy." If he's angry because of something that company policy dictates, then company policy is what he's angry about. Saying that it's policy does not make everything better.

The people receiving complaints should be empowered to fix them. It usually doesn't take much, and it builds long-term relationships. If you're dealing with an angry customer, you may not be in a position to fix everything he's upset about. But it's important that you try. And, if you can't fix it, you should be able to pass his complaint on to someone who can.

The faster way to cement a bad relationship is to tell someone that, not only will you not fix his problem, but you will not let him talk to someone who could.

In conclusion

Feedback is one of the best tools you have for improving the quality of your site or product. Minor complaints can serve as guidelines for improving your product, and even angry feedback has its place.

It's essential to the long-term health of your company that you have a reliable feedback system in place, and that you also have a strategy for dealing with the different kinds of feedback you receive. Always listen to what users have to say and be prepared to rethink your product based on their comments.

This week's action item: Pick something that's always annoyed you about a product or Web site, and try making a complaint. How does the response you get (if any) make you feel?


About the author

Photo of Peter Seebach Peter Seebach has been having trouble navigating through badly designed pages since before frames and JavaScript existed. He continues to believe that, someday, pages will be designed to be usable, rather than being designed to look impressive. You can reach him at []