When Customers Comment

comment-boxPew Research Center has released another interesting poll that looks at how people interact with each other on social networks. There were two primary findings from that poll, which are both things that most of us have observed but that were interesting to see validated.

The first is that social networks tend to have a suppressive impact on the willingness of people to express personal opinions on a social network. On sites like Facebook and Twitter people tend to hang out with people of a like mind and this creates what Pew calls a ‘spiral of silence’. This is something I have always thought of as peer pressure. When people are on the same network with their kids, their parents, other relatives, their coworkers and their friends they tend to be reluctant to share views that they know are contrary or controversial to the views shared by their ‘friends’ on the social sites.

The study was conducted by looking at how willing people were to discuss the Edward Snowden – NSA story about the government spying on apparently everybody in the world. It turns out that people were less likely to discuss the topic on Facebook and Twitter (42%) than they were when talking live with somebody (86%). It’s obvious that the peer pressure of a social network stops people from expressing views that they might freely express somewhere else.

That’s interesting, but the other finding is that an opposite thing happens when people post on other sites like newspapers or customer service sites. There, the peer pressure seems to have the opposite effect and people tend to pile on to negative comments made by others. It’s almost as if seeing a negative comment gives them the courage to also say something negative. Anybody who owns a web site with a customer service contact page that that allows public comments knows about this phenomenon. On such sites many people will say things that they would never say in public and comments can quickly escalate and get incredibly nasty.

This creates a real dilemma for a company that wants to maintain a place for customers to comment, seek help or ask questions on the web. Many companies have shown that having a public forum can be an extremely effective way to identify problems that they might otherwise never know about. And the web creates a way to respond and often solve problems quickly.

But you need to have a thick skin if the comments on your site take a turn towards the ugly. One angry comment can lead to another until your site is flocked by angry people, many who might not even be your customers. All of the social media experts I read recommend that a company must engage customers in this sort of situation rather than withdraw or delete comments. They say experience shows that when a company addresses hostility in a reasonable, calm, persistent and truthful way that the company will be viewed as more human.

If you can further demonstrate that you are willing to solve some of the problems that caused the comments to escalate it’s quite possible to win some of your detractors over to your side. It seems that the phenomenon of piling on to negative comments, perhaps described as negative peer pressure, can be defused by reasonable tactics by a company.

You can’t wade into such a situation and just try to mollify people by being nice. That is the sort of behavior that people expect from customer service reps on the phone and they generally don’t like it on line. Instead you can feel free to disagree with people as long as you are doing so with facts and respect.

There are going to be angry people that you cannot mollify or even have a discussion with and sometimes the comments might get so vile that you will have little choice but to delete or ignore them. But when people have legitimate concerns and they go overboard in expressing unhappiness and frustration you can usually win them over by providing facts and solutions. After all, anybody complaining on your site obviously has a vested interest in your product or service and they generally want to like it. Your job in this situation is to help them do so.

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