Social media zombies and the 2 percent solution


I’ve spent most of my career in sales and marketing and have been fairly obsessive about customer satisfaction. But it occurred to me that some of my long-held beliefs about keeping customers happy have expired. Social media zombies have turned the world of service upside-down. Maybe it’s time to take a new look …

How the rules have changed

A few years ago, I was in charge of re-inventing a customer service department for a large company. During the process I searched for all the help I could get from experts and published best practices. The most important paper I found came from the University of Michigan Business School. They studied the cost versus benefit of trying to achieve “100% customer satisfaction” and came up with two important conclusions:

1) The cost of satisfying most customers is very low. Most people simply want to be acknowledged and assured that the problem is being addressed. Just good, normal business, right?

2) The other conclusion was that less than 2 percent of your customers are probably “haters” who will never be satisfied no matter what you do. They will try to “game you” for more goodies, harass you even if you respond, and just be an annoying pain in the patootie because that is how they get attention.

zombies 2The researcher’s conclusion was that in most cases, it is economically unwise to try to shoot for 100 percent customer satisfaction because an inordinate amount of your resources will be tied up in that difficult 2 percent. The implication is — go ahead and lose them because they are too expensive to maintain.

Unfortunately that advice is probably no longer valid because in an era where every person can publish, post, and tweet. The haters may very will control the conversation. They don’t go away. They attack, attack, attack …. like social media zombies.

You can no longer ignore them. Every business needs a solution for that 2 percent they used to be able to ignore.

Neutralizing your zombies by keeping your house in order

If you have reliable products and good customer service, you’re probably not going to be getting scads of zombies hating you on the web. A study I completed for a large company in the hospitality industry showed that .02 percent of their Facebook comments were negative – that is two hundredths of a percent. Hardly anything to lose sleep over and that is fairly typical if you have your house in order.

But what if you DON’T have your house in order?

One of the themes of this blog over the years has been the importance of establishing a company culture that can support the openness and responsiveness required by the social web. That is not always easy.

Another one of my clients has been paralyzed by fear over the possibility of negative comments. They were so fearful in fact that their competitors were zooming by them and their investors were getting frantic. They brought me in to help figure out a strategy.

I spent the first day trolling around their customer service department. This was the heart of the company and I needed to learn how the customers connected to them and if there were potential opportunities for solving customer problems through a social media strategy.

What I found shocked me.

Creating your own zombies

The service center was highly efficient and skilled at handling customer inquiries until there was a serious problem. If a complaint was escalated to a supervisor, the customer waited on hold an average of 10 minutes and it was not unusual for people to wait 30 minutes or more if they did not abandon the call! Perhaps before the days of the social web, a company could get away with this, but in this era, every angry customer waiting on hold is a potential zombie. What do you think they are going to do while they are waiting all that time? Complain on Facebook!

My advice was for this company to do nothing about starting their Facebook page until they could address this serious customer service issue, which they did.

98% is not good enough

Another customer of mine had introduced a new product and it became a sensation. The company was aggressively adding capacity and working like mad to keep the shipments going. They were proud that under the circumstances of overwhelming growth, they had achieved a 98 percent on-time shipping performance.

zombies 3Is that good enough?

The company was shipping 2 million units per month. If 2 percent of the shipments were late, that means 40,000 people were unhappy. According to the university study I referred to, about 2 percent of those dissatisfied customers will be “haters” who receive some psychological benefit from making a company miserable. That means they were creating 800 new zombies …. every month!

You would expect that a lot of these haters would start venting about their late shipments on Facebook and Twitter.

And that is exactly what happened.

They complained and complained and complained. It was ugly. The social media undead kept battering them relentlessly, wave after wave. The company became so overwhelmed by online complaints that their customer service department could not keep up, which made it even worse. Within a few weeks, the Facebook page had become a cesspool. My advice? Shut it down, solve the shipment problem, and build a customer service strategy that could handle the toxic 2 percent.

This is a big deal … and expensive

This is the new reality of our world. Even five years ago, the University of Michigan professors were probably still correct. But today, there is little room for error, isn’t there? Even a few dissatisfied customers can hijack a brand conversation. Even serving “reasonable” customers is a challenge. Social Habit research discovered that people expect brands to respond to a social media complaint within an hour, 24 hours a day.

Are you ready for that?

It seems to me there are vast implications for zombie-proofing your business in this environment, What are you seeing? Are costs going up? Customer expectations? How are you adjusting?

Illustration: Edited version of Fanboys versus Zombies magazine

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  • It can be an ongoing issue and obviously some, even within the same industry, handle it better than others. Those who attempt to sweep everything under the rug by trying to ban and delete the complainers only make things worse. The complainers get all of their friends to trash the page and hit the review sites. Having said that, every complaining customer isn’t angelic. We’ve had situations where people literally trashed a cabin and it could be proved, and were charged for it, and the people who trashed it were all over social media telling everyone how “unfairly” they were treated. Then there are the “free-cationers”, who make things up in an attempt to get all their charges refunded.

  • That’s a bit of doom-n-gloom for a Monday, Mark. 🙂 I’ve been dealing with a 2% hater this past month. And yes, it’s incredibly draining what one nasty person can do. But really, how much can you do (and afford to do) if – by definition – they won’t stop? At some point the business owner has to make a decision to move on. There is no such thing as 100% satisfaction, so we’re right back where we started and having to let some bad apples get their way. Oy, vey!

  • Mark, I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion.

    You opened with the report’s conclusion that “less than 2 percent of your customers are probably “haters” who will never be satisfied no matter what you do. They will try to “game you” for more goodies, harass you even if you respond, and just be an annoying pain in the patootie because that is how they get attention.”

    How are you going to create an organization that satisfies this <2% that refuse to be satisfied? I would propose one related and one additional approach to this problem instead of trying to satisfy them directly.

    First (as you said) build a better org, removing the reasons for legitimate complaints. But the goal isn't to placate the 2%, they can't be placated. The goal here is to ensure the 2% appear unreasonable in their complaints. You undermine their credibility when the you create a great experience for everyone.

    Second is to activate your supporters, your customers. We are talking about less than 2% here, you need to balance their voice with the voices of satisfied customers. From asking people to review you on Yelp at the point of sale to soliciting feedback on your Facebook page, balance the voice of the haters with the voices of your supporters.

    Every company will eventually have haters; you can't just silence all of them. But you can work to put that hate in context and change how it is perceived by everyone else.

    Additional support for this approach: Zappos is a golden child of customer service, yet they still have 2% negative reviews. They don't matter though, because they are dwarfed by the 96% of reviews that are positive (as of today):–22763.html

  • Ugh. No stopping that I guess. What a story.

  • Well said. A good point Frank.

  • These are very good strategies Eric. I chose to not get into more depth in the post because i was afraid it was getting too long. In my mind, after 1,000 words, the readers go “tilt!” : )

    Certainly a long piece on the actual strategies would be appropriate too. Maybe even make a good guest post? ; )

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  • First off, this was a great and timely post. Customer service has become a very tricky proposition in the modern age of social networking. The issue of “haters” and “zombies” is not as clear cut as we would like to think on the business end. Yes, it would be nice if people just called customer service instead of taking their beef public and posting on Facebook or Twitter, but we can’t ignore the opportunity that these public interactions can represent. Show that your customer service is unrelenting and unflappable. You might not make that customer happy, but other customers will see your efforts and take notice.

    Certainly, there will be a tiny percentage of people that will never be pleased and will go to the social networks to broadcast their problem and attempt to destroy the reputation of a business with repeated badgering (such as the rental property example mentioned below), but I would contend that this “outlier” group is far closer to the .02% number than the 2% one.

    I truly believe that when a business begins labeling customers as “zombies” or “haters,” eventually a predisposition is created where you begin to devalue future customer’s problems as illegitimate based on trivial things such as the complaint being posted in all caps, being posted on both Twitter and Facebook, or just generally seeming rude. Maybe you (the business owner) are having a bad day and reading too much into the tone of a customer’s complaint. Maybe the customer is just having a bad day and their vitriol is misdirected. If you don’t take the attitude that every customer’s problem can be fixed and you don’t at least make a spirited attempt, you might risk alienating a great customer. Taking it even further, businesses should also realize that any customer who takes to social networks to trumpet their problems is also probably the same kind of person who goes to the social networks to endorse the things they love. The goal should be to convert the hater into a brand advocate and channel that passion and use it for good.

    There are obviously always going to be extreme cases that can not be resolved, but these instances should be far less than 2%. This small a number may not be attainable for a company as massive as Zappos, but smaller businesses are often times the ones that can are at risk of being destroyed by haters and zombies and to lose 2% of your business could be devastating. To survive this zombie apocalypse, the two percent need to be saved.

  • A truly superb, insightful and wise comment Ben. Nothing more to add other than to say thanks!

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  • Wow!! Your analogy of zombies is correct because these are definitely scary stories. But zombie fear should definitely not keep a company from establishing a presence. Great service and even great communication always wins out. Since some zombies will always exist though, what are your thoughts about simply responding in a way that allows the other customers to know that you are at least responsive? Does that help or is it better to “ignore” the haters?

  • On the flip side of this, what about customer service reps that are zombies? My perfect example is Comcast.

    Back in 2011 I didn’t have HSI for 15 days because the reps kept dispatching techs to come to my home (nothing was wrong inside). The problem Comcast did not recognize was the inside tech needed to speak with the reps who handle the issues outside who never did. In an effort to get my issue resolve faster I took to Twitter and complained to @ComcastCares who did a corporate escalation to the home office in Philly. I figured out Comcast’s system and was able to get the left hand to talk to the right and my issue was finally resolved. I also learned of a local team of two guys who makeup the Executive Support team that handle issues like mine. Had I not been proactive and complained, my service would probably still be out.

    Anytime lately I’ve unfortunately had to call them, I’ve gotten a rep that sounds more like a phone tree than a real person because they spit out scripted automated responses. I’m consider myself tech savvy so when I attempt to tell the rep what I’ve done so far to troubleshoot they act like I said absolutely nothing.

  • I agree that social has given everyone a voice, and the zombies are usually the ones that bring the megaphones to amplify that voice. And whether your brand has a social presence or not, those zombies are going to speak out and escalate.

    I think the brands should have social profiles and adequately staff those profiles to try and solve the issues directly or “fill the service funnel” by giving them further options to take the discussion offline. If they use a social media monitoring tool that also scores sentiment and can even send alerts (I happen to represent such a tool), then the brands can get more immediate notifications and first pass prioritization of the issues.

    Having said that, you point out the great point that “haters gonna hate”. They will try to hold your brand reputation hostage while making unreasonable demands. At that point, I think the customer service reps have to remain as helpful and courteous as possible…and eventually have an accepted process for disengaging the zombies when they refuse to be satisfied. Then hope that the other socially savvy consumers see the unreasonableness of the zombies.

    I know I read reviews as a consumer (another content type a good monitoring tool can capture). I typically throw out the obvious highs (drank too much Kool-Aid) and lows (zombies) and go with the broader viewpoints.

  • I don’t think you can ignore the haters any longer. One reason is that people are going to be watching for your response and even if you know these people are “chronic” haters, the others may not know that. Thanks so much for commenting RK III

  • I am dealing with the same thing right now with Verizon. I have been trying to get a response out of them to a problem for three months. Same issue — mindless people who want to check a box instead of solve a problem.

  • Much wisdom here Brian. Well done sir!

  • Chris S. Cornell

    Some of the most (financially) successful businesses in the world have extremely high levels of negative comments on Facebook and Twitter. One such company is McDonald’s, where on some posts negative comments comprise the majority. It doesn’t stop McDonald’s from blasting away with thousands upon thousands of advertising dollars, while appearing to completely ignore the negative comments. Thoughts?

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  • Greetings, I’m looking for the bibliographic reference of the cited paper from the University of Michigan Business School about the cost-benefit analysis of trying to achieve “100% customer satisfaction”. Thank you in advance to any one who may be able to give me the reference.

  • I have been unable to find it. It is buried in my old work files somewhere but could not find it.

  • I would say most companies do not get the negative comments that McD does. It is kind of a polarizing brand. To their credit, they are among the most transparent and proactive brands out there and they still get dinged.

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