Responding to Customer Feedback: 5 Lessons From Trump and Hillary

By: Marcus Varner | September 12, 2016 (Edited July 7, 2017)

responding to customer feedback

If you ever get tired of responding to customer feedback in online reviews, social media, or customer support lines, just be glad you're not a U.S. presidential candidate.

Since the 2016 presidential nominees started campaigning in earnest over a year ago, all of them have been subject to a barrage of criticism and feedback in the form of tweets, news commentary, and face-to-face encounters with voters. Now, as we enter the last few months of the 2016 presidential race, the pressure on Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton doesn't seem to be letting up.

Yes, all of this has been, above all, entertaining-more entertaining, in fact, than the sitcoms and dramas that typically follow the news.

It's really more than any person, even one equipped with an army of handlers, can respond to effectively. Which makes it very fertile territory for learning how to deal with customer feedback.

How should any company or candidate with limited time and resources respond to the endless flow of customer feedback coming at them from all directions? How should they not respond?

In this regard, the responses of both Trump and Clinton provide some valuable lessons learned for any company trying to get a handle on and benefit from customer feedback.

Courtesy of Hillary and "The Donald," here are five of the biggest customer feedback lessons learned from the 2016 presidential campaign thus far:

1. Seek first to understand

People running for the POTUS spot succeed when they can create in voters the sense that they understand and respect their concerns. Conversely, candidates that can't convince voters that they at least understand their struggles find themselves disconnected from their votes. Candidates with entrenched positions on certain topics can struggle to find the balance between highlighting their positions while still listening to and understanding the positions of others.

Take Hillary Clinton's recorded run-in last March with a female Somali-American who questioned her on her past racial remarks and lack of diversity among elected officials.

As you can see in the video, Clinton says nothing to indicate that she's heard and understood the woman's concern, but instead goes straight to providing evidence to rebut the woman's question. Yes, part of this is due to that fact that the woman had called Clinton on the carpet about a very real inconsistency in her stances-how could Clinton have responded in understanding with incriminating herself? When the woman pushes back, Clinton does more rebutting and then dismisses the woman with, "Why don't you go run for something then?"

Needless to say, judging by the look on the woman's face, Clinton doesn't win her over. Oh, and the video goes viral as an example of "Hillary snapping at a voter" to be used by her opponents.

Does this happen with companies facing harsh consumer reviews? All too often, and often because of an overriding feeling of defensiveness that seems to pervade many companies. Instead of listening to understand the root of a bad review, companies immediately go into attack mode.

And this inability to listen and demonstrate understanding can have a very real negative effect on the bottom line. According to Livework:

"Over 65% of customers defect because they think a service provider is indifferent to them, versus 15% that leave because they are dissatisfied with the service. Defection has little to do with the quality of the service but the quality of the relationship that is built from the beginning and over time. Investing in customer relationships improves the overall satisfaction, customer retention and loyalty."

What companies can learn: Take the time to ask questions and understand the customer's concerns before attempting to resolve their problem. Just as you think you are justified in your decisions as a company, the customer also thinks they are justified in being dissatisfied with your product/service. And just as with Clinton's video, failure to deal with these situations in an understanding way can quickly explode into an ugly, very public spectacle.

2. Choose your words carefully

responding to customer feedback

This election season continues to generate "Did he/she seriously just say that?" moments at an unprecedented rate. Stumping tirelessly at churches, schools, VFW halls, with hordes of media outlets, and in meetings with government notables, even with speech writers and scripts, presidential candidates are bound to screw up. As evidence, I submit the following greatest hits:

Trump: "Look at my African American over here!"

Hillary: "We're gonna put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."

Trump: "I was down there, and I watched our police and our firemen, down on 7-Eleven, down at the World Trade Center, right after it came down."

Hillary: "We didn't lose a single person [in Libya]."

Trump: "Don't worry about that baby, I love babies. I hear that baby crying, I like it...Actually, I was only kidding. You can get the baby out of here."

Hillary: "I have a lot of experience dealing with men who sometimes get off the reservation in the way they behave and how they speak."

Such gaffes, as understandable as they might be, are rarely ignored by the media and other commentators. Instead, they become fodder for hundreds of hours of news programming and late-night comedy shows. Such is also the case with consumer reviews. One employee going off-script (assuming you have one) can soon be magnified on social media into a public relations nightmare.

What companies can learn: Don't shoot from the hip when it comes to responding to consumer reviews on review sites and social media. Take the time to create a script for anyone who will be performing this function and then train them. Also, your script doesn't have to-and probably shouldn't-be verbatim. Many time training your employees on talking points and common scenarios is enough.

3. Be transparent

responding to customer feedback

Both Trump and Clinton have a trust problem.

As of last July, 67% of voting-age Americans said they believe Clinton is not honest nor trustworthy; that was up 5 percentage points from June, making her the least trusted of the current crop of presidential candidates. Yes, there are the public outcries about her health, her involvement in the attack on U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, and her irresponsible use of a private email server while secretary of state, but it's really how she has responded to these questions that had hurt her trustworthiness.

Rather than simply creating an atmosphere of transparency around these issues, she had dodged questions and even been caught giving mismatched accounts and figures under oath in front of congressional hearings.

Not that Trump is faring much better, with 62% of voters saying they don't think he is honest or trustworthy. He has promised voters, "I will never lie to you," but his refusal to present his own tax records, his past real estate dealings, and his involvement with the for-profit university that bears his name have critically undermined that promise.

When companies engage in this kind of evasion of customer questions and concerns, rather than creating an environment of transparency, customer relationships typically go sour. For instance, if a customer complains about poor service, companies will choose to either:

  1. share the information they have regarding the event and join the customer in a search for the truth to make things right, or
  2. bring their resources to bear to obstruct the customer's search for information and resolution

What companies can learn: It doesn't take a genius to figure which of the approaches mentioned above are better for building strong customer relationships, so why do companies mess this up? Unfortunately, companies that allow shady practices to become a part of their business model or culture will always be stuck with option #2. Lesson: don't let unlawful or unethical practices become entrenched in your business, and you'll never have to hide anything from your customers.

4. Focus on making friends

Especially in the world of social media and online reviews, a general rule of thumb is to make more friends and create fewer enemies. More friends means greater reach, more advocates for your brand, and a stronger amplification of your own brand efforts. The same is true of political campaigns.

So why do some of the presidential candidates seem so dead-set on making enemies?

responding to customer feedback

Yes, I'm speaking of Trump's unnecessarily insensitive and divisive messaging. His countless negative comments on Mexicans and Hispanics, for instance, have driven a wedge between him and potentially critical voting group.

Some will argue that this rhetoric has been crucial in securing his place with a certain subsection of conservative voters, but it has also painted him in a corner as he tries to expand his platform for a general election and an audience of much more diverse values and backgrounds.

Now, with the days ticking down to election day, Trump pleas to minority voters are largely falling on deaf ears.

What companies can learn: Being unkind to any customer or potential customer has a way of coming back around, and you don't need anymore resistance than you already have. Instead, look for ways to reduce the number of haters. If your review-checking processes are regularly antagonizing haters-those customers who leave negative reviews-and turning them further against your brand, it's time to stop, have an intervention, and make the decision to work to convert your haters into your biggest fans.

5. Don't lose your cool

Yes, politicians are just human and subject to frustration and anger. But both Clinton and Trump have paid the price for losing their tempers in the limelight and offending large groups in the process. Like this unfortunate, finger-jabbing exchange with a member of Greenpeace:

Or Trump's response to a Muslim-American Khizr Khan's speech at the Democratic National Convention:

"If you look at his wife, she was standing there, she had nothing to say, she probably - maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say, you tell me."

These types of snippy, unmeasured responses have a way of making both candidates look decidedly un-presidential and possibly unfit for office.

Unfortunately, companies can also allow negative reviews to generate emotional, unprofessional, and even shameful responses. And while most people give regular joes a pass when their online comments get too heated, they don't give the same leeway to companies.

What companies can learn: Companies are held to a higher standard. No matter how bad the trolling, no matter how untrue the accusations leveled by an angry customer, companies must take the high road and maintain a standard of professionalism in their responses.

Keep Your Constituents Happy

Luckily, your company is not a presidential candidate, with all the pressure and criticism that comes with that distinction, but you do have a constituency of your own: your customers. Not all of them will be happy; few companies have 100% customer retention. But by learning to be more customer-centric and more strategic in how you respond to the bad news your constituency brings to you, you can hold onto and delight more of them than your competition.

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Written by Marcus Varner

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