How to prevent forest fires (negative word of mouth) from spreading

During my time in the service I spent several years living in Colorado.  No surprise, every summer when the conditions become hot and dry the danger for forest fires would elevate dramatically.  Firefighters were on alert and even Army soldiers began to train on how to combat fires.  Tension would build in the state, and inevitably a fire would breakout and the irreparable damage would ensue.  Only then did the conversations around me shift to “why does this keep happening?”  Having a background in business I could not help but draw parallels to between the fires and negative word of mouth for a company.  Similar to the forest fires every year, many businesses often wait until issues spread like cancer (issues that could have been prevented altogether) before they react.  This is the age of social media and instant gratification for detractors – so, like forest fires, businesses today need to be proactive in their approach to reacting quickly and ebbing the threat from the beginning.

I like to think of the following techniques as the firebreaks and controlled burns of the business world.  In order to help prevent forest fires many states will reduce plant growth on the soil bed of thick forests and create lanes (similar to roads) to prevent fires from spreading.  Similarly, businesses should have strategies in place to prevent negative word of mouth from reaching potential clients.  This is achieved by addressing issues correctly the first time and actively seeking out your detractors and converting them to happy customers.

Addressing issues correctly the first time is extremely important.  If a client comes to you with a problem with your service or product you need to have a system in place to address and solve the problem as soon as possible.  Do not let it linger.   Think of it as making it right, right away.  The more time the problem goes unresolved, the greater opportunity the dissatisfaction makes it way all over the internet (forest fire).  Therefore, whoever is addressing customer issues needs to be both knowledgeable and empowered enough to fix it.  Stomp out the fire before it spreads.

Seek out your detractors before they find you.  Chances are, even if you are the leader in customer satisfaction, there are still customers out there that are angry with you for one reason or another.  They exist, trust me.  Again, most businesses only address the issues after the customer speaks up.  You can prevent this by surveying your customers and asking them their likelihood to recommend you (Net Promoter Score).  This method will bring to light the customers that have deep-seated issues before they reach the boiling point.  After you identify those detractors, you close the loop with them thus turning negative word of mouth into possible referrals.  According to Reichheld you accomplish this by probing for the root cause of the disappointment, then apologizing and determining ways to solve the problem.

In addition the strategies outlined above, your company will benefit greatly by being in tune with social media.  Everyone talks online and the message spreads fast.  By effectively scanning the messages sent over the net about your company you are able to sculpt your image and put out fires.  Twitter and facebook are great places to start.  If you don’t have a Twitter or Facebook page yet, you should really considering creating them.  These platforms allow your customers to link their messages directly to you, which means they are easily found.  And like fires, the quicker they are discovered the faster they are diminished.  Understanding how to use these platforms for this purpose will be the topic of a later post – but for now you should recognize their significance.

I will share a personal example of how the aforementioned strategies come into play.  Just last month our CEO Torey Maerz had an issue with his mobile provider, Ting.  After sending a defective phone in for replacement, Torey was charged for both the original phone and the replacement.  This $600 error caused quite an uproar as their customer service was unable to defuse the issue immediately.  A day later Ting was able to correct the problem, but not until after negative word of mouth was spread to hundreds of people.

Let’s outline what Ting did correctly, and where they could improve.  As a positive, Ting was actively scanning Twitter and became aware that the issue was spreading like cancer across the internet.  A manager soon addressed the issue and reversed the problem.  If Ting had not been proactive here the negative message would not have been corrected publicly.  As a negative, Ting was unable to solve the problem until after the original customer service representative got the issue wrong.  Only then did a manager step in and correct the problem.  By this point some damage was already done.

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