Admittedly, it's not easy to hug your haters--those who share legitimate complaints or go as far as spewing negativity and toxic comments in public forums. But customer service has become a spectator sport, and business owners need to understand the game in order to play to win.

Complaints come in multiple formats, in many channels of communication, and degrees of intensity. In Jay Baer's research with Edison, conducted for his new book, Hug Your Haters, he discovered that there are two main types of haters. These two groups of haters differ demographically, in the frequency of their complaints, in their use and embrace of technology, and in how and where they choose to complain.

Understanding the two types of haters, and the differences between them, will enable you to spot them in the wild, and provide the support and succor each requires. Knowing your haters gives you a much better chance of being able to tap into the benefits of hugging them, because handling a hater incorrectly is almost as bad as not handling them at all.

Offstage haters go direct and complain less

The first group are Offstage Haters. This group almost always complains first in a private, one-to-one format, often telephone or email. Offstage haters are also slightly older, less mobile and social media savvy, and they complain somewhat less frequently on an annual basis.

Even though complaints from offstage haters are private, they are often less strident and outlandish than many of the public complaints in social media and review websites. This is particularly true of email complaints.

Telephone complaints come with a different set of circumstances. Because they are synchronous in a way that no other hater outlet is (even the best social media customer service teams take a few minutes to respond), the opportunity to unleash your wrath on the living embodiment of your ire is difficult to resist.

You're already being forced (or feel like you're being forced) to take your time to complain. Then, perhaps you've been stewing on hold for a while. Next, the person who is assigned to assist you doesn't understand the situation, can't easily access the information needed to address the issue, lacks empathy, or doesn't take any responsibility for his or her employer's shortcoming.

You're being "helped" but not being heard. It just throws fuel on the fire.

Onstage haters go public and are more outlandish

The second type of haters are onstage haters. These folks almost always complain first in a public venue--social media, review sites, discussion boards, or forums. Compared to offstage haters, this group is slightly younger, certainly more mobile, with more technology and social media savvy. Onstage haters also tend to complain more often, partially because they can do so from their smartphone in a matter of seconds.

Today, for most businesses, offstage haters are still the majority, and most customer complaints are made in a private format. Jay's research found that 62 percent of complaints are first made via telephone or email. But the balance of power between offstage and onstage haters is shifting rapidly due to ease of use and perceived differences in outcomes.

Companies that address onstage complaints--those that are made in social media or a public forum--or even acknowledge positive or neutral feedback, have a chance to dramatically boost customer advocacy. That alone is a good reason to hug those haters on social media, review sites, and discussion boards.

It doesn't end with the one hater, though. Onstage, customer service is a spectator sport--and every onlooker is a potential customer.

As I told Jay when he interviewed me for his book:

"If a customer calls you on the phone to complain, surely you wouldn't hang up on them. And not responding in social media is akin to hanging up on them, only worse, because there are actually other people watching."

Everything online is amplified

Imagine that every time you called a business, a few dozen other customers were allowed to listen in on the call. Would customer service be different?

The concept seems far-fetched, but that's precisely how public, online interactions in social media and other onstage venues are. Everything online is amplified. Your interaction with customers is amplified. If you choose to not interact, that silence is amplified too.

Onstage feedback will become dominant

Public venues, where everyone is watching how businesses react, may become the most popular way for customers to interact with companies. Onstage feedback may surpass offstage feedback when today's younger consumers become the dominant group of purchasers and possibly before then.

Today's youth--tomorrow's customers--hate using the phone, and only occasionally use email. Imagine what will happen to legacy, offstage feedback mechanisms when their generation makes up the majority of your customers.

The shift is already happening

Even today, customer service practitioners and observers are seeing a rising tide of onstage questions, comments, and complaints.

Dan Gingiss, formerly the head of digital customer service Discover, has seen this transition already. "In the Millennial generation there just isn't much desire to pick up the phone and call an 800 number. They feel it's easier to tweet. We are definitely seeing a shift," he told Jay.

Email may suffer the same decline, according to Scott Wise who owns a chain of brewpubs in Indiana: "I don't think email is going to be the end all, be all. Because people want instant answers. It's not just the Millennials, and it's not just this younger generation, it's all of us. We are just becoming very ADHD from everything that we are surrounded with and all the stimulus that's being thrown at us at all time. Everything is at our fingertips and we feel like the minute we shoot off an email, if I don't have an answer in five minutes, then someone is ignoring me."

This shift from offstage to onstage is already in full swing for businesses with customers that tend to skew somewhat younger, like Microsoft XBox. XBox Community Support Manager James Degnan reports that in the past five years, the number of interactions handled by his Twitter customer support team has increased ten-fold.

Are you ready for customer service as a spectator sport?

Jay Baer is the author of Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers, about which Guy Kawasaki says: "This is a landmark book in the history of customer service." Hug Your Haters is the first customer service and customer experience book written for the modern, mobile era and is based on proprietary research and more than 70 exclusive interviews.

 

Published on: Mar 1, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.