Are your customers satisfied with your product and company experience?  How would you answer this question?  Would you point to how effectively you handling complaints?  Would you highlight anecdotal evidence of customer compliments?  Would you refer to your customer support transaction satisfaction metrics?  Would you refer to your recent NetPromoter scores?

Some may be better indicators than others of customer satisfaction, but there’s a big problem with all of them:  they don’t provide any indication of the largest group of dissatisfied customers.

The Silent Majority

No, not the same group that Nixon was referring to when he coined this phrase in his speech in 1969 (I know my age is very evident here).  Here I’m referring to your largest group of dissatisfied customers!  According to research, only 1 out of 25 customers that are dissatisfied ever tell the company.  The rest?  Well, unfortunately, they are only silent with you because they do, in fact, talk and it’s to a few others (10) who talk to a few others (10 again) who talk to a few others (5).  By the time everyone’s done talking about your company and products in a not-so-positive way, that 25 turns into 1300 people who are now in the conversation!   And, the company who is the source of this discontent hasn’t heard a word from any of them!

So, why do customers stay silent?  There are several key reasons that have been sighted by research and experience:
  • Non confrontational personality
  • Doesn’t care enough to make the effort
  • Concerns about retribution
  • Bad experiences with previous complaints
  • Feelings that they’re the only ones with the problem
  • Concerns about wasting their time and money
  • Don’t want to jeopardize their social or professional position
  • Don’t know how/where to voice their complaint
This isn’t a complete list, but it doesn’t really need to be.  The primary point is: the vast majority of dissatisfied customers will never directly tell you.  Big problem, but there is something you can do about it.

Handle the complaints well that you do know about.

Realizing that for every complaint, there are 25 others that haven’t said anything directly to you, treat each complaint very seriously and professionally.  Once again, research shows that there are some clearly established ways to effectively resolve complaints that will potentially help you indirectly address over half the silently dissatisfied customers issues.  They include:
  • Timeliness - prompt response to a complaint is key to getting back on the right track with a customer
  • Facilitation - provide easy and well communicated methods for customers to express complaints.  Remember, the easier you make it, the less will remain silent at least because they didn’t know how to voice their complaint to you.
  • Redress - try to make it right.  Once again, the customer has suffered a setback (real or perceived) due to your (real or perceived) shortcoming.  You may not be able to make it completely right with them, but providing some redress goes a long way to restoring the relationship.
  • Apology - don’t forget to apologize.  Sincerely expressed apologies are very effective in healing any psychological damage that may have been incurred.
  • Credibility - rather than providing excuses or self-justifications be clear and transparent with the customer about the reasons for the failure and what you’re doing (or will do) to prevent the problem from recurring.
  • Attentiveness - this is represented by respect, empathy, effort and willingness to listen.  Research indicates that this is the single most effective way to overcome dissatisfaction.  Attitudes and behaviors that express attentiveness (or not) will make or break the relationship.
Satisfied Employees = Satisfied Customers

The most important factors leading to customer dissatisfaction are:
  • Unsuitable employee behavior - research indicates almost 3/4 of customers are attracted to a competitor due to indifference, aggression or poor attitudes expressed to customers by employees
  • Lack of high quality products or services
  • Price that doesn’t reflect value received
Just as employees are the primary cause of dissatisfaction, they are the primary means of overcoming dissatisfaction and creating a positive experience for the customer.  As one person put it: “You can’t expect your employee to delight the customer unless you as an employer delight your employees.”  This is especially true for your front-line, customer-facing employees who typically are in support and sales.

As more and more software moves to the web and mobile devices, we have the opportunity for better customer interaction because we have the potential for a deeper engagement and more responsive environment.  How many of you have looked for an app for your smartphone and read the reviews by customers who have already purchased the product?  Talk about facilitation - customer response is nearly realtime!  At the same time I'm sure you've also experienced the frustration of using a web service where the company provides no means of customer feedback or problem resolution, or makes it very difficult to find and access?  And how about that wonderful approach of showing you the door (figuratively) to the online customer forum!  All these can become part of the solution, if they are used to systematically find out what is causing dissatisfaction and then effectively addressing it.

Now, back to that silent majority.  Handling complaints isn’t going to be enough, we need to be able to proactively identify those silently dissatisfied customers and, more importantly, work at preventing customer dissatisfaction in the first place by focusing on continuous customer experience improvement.  Stay tuned for my next blog(s) where I’ll provide some insight into these critical areas.  Until then, let me know what you’ve done to turn those dissatisfied customers around and better yet, how you prevented them from being dissatisfied in the first place.


    John Geffel

    Value is a much abused, misunderstood and misused word, everyone thinks they provide it but so few show real evidence that they do!

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