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5 tips for assessing negative customer feedback

Michael Antioco , Professor - Dean of Faculty and Research

Michael Antioco and Kristof Coussement, respectively professors of marketing at EDHEC Business School and IESEG School of Management, deal in this article with the impact of the customer's language on the perception and consideration of dissatisfaction by managers in companies.

Reading time :
7 Dec 2018
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In the digital era, firms receive more and more feedback about their products and services. Customers do not hesitate to express their dissatisfaction by email, through tools put at their disposal by the firms themselves, in independent forums, and on commercial websites. While the “star” system makes it easy to classify the views of the least satisfied customers, opinions expressed through text templates do not allow such easy assessment of the degree of dissatisfaction being expressed.

Yet it is a matter of priority to respond to such negative feedback in order to avoid serious loss of brand equity and the firm’s perceived value – especially when the views can be read by the whole online community. The direct and

Michael Antioco and Kristof Coussement, respectively professors of marketing at the EDHEC Business School and the IESEG School of Management, recently conducted a study [1] aamong marketing managers responsible for customer feedback [2], to analyse the impact of language use on the understanding and acknowledgement of customer dissatisfaction by company managers. The conclusion is clear: as numerous academic papers in psychology and linguistics have argued, choice of words can create a bias in managers’ estimations of customer satisfaction.

In detail, 5 key findings form 5 lessons for companies:

#1 Managers tend seriously to underestimate the level of dissatisfaction expressed in negative client feedback when there is a significant proportion of words linked to causality, such as “because”, “due to” and “consequently”. They are in fact more likely to make overly positive assessments of this kind of negative feedback, as they also do when customers say that they will “never again buy” or “would not recommend” the brand or product. The literature explains that words linked to causality or the non-intention to buy in the future can seem contradictory. It is a kind of protection of the individual or the firm in face of consumers/buyers who seem too aggressive in their way of presenting feedback.

Conversely, some formulations of negative feedback have beneficial effects on management assessments of customer dissatisfaction, including those that denote a particular client’s reflection, even if the feedback is very negative. The more the customer uses terms like “consider” or “feel that”, the more the manager will correctly estimate the customer’s degree of dissatisfaction. This is also true when the verbs appear mainly in the conditional (e.g. “should”, “could”, “ought to”). This language, seen as less aggressive and irrational, puts managers in an optimal frame of mind for correctly estimating the customer’s level of dissatisfaction.

Tip: Be careful not to let the customer’s language lead you to ignore or underestimate, or over-estimate, the strength of their negative feedback. An aggressive, confrontational, or strong tone in the writing should not determine the importance attached to a customer’s negative feedback.

#2 Women managers are significantly better than men at estimating the degree of customer dissatisfaction. The literature of the field shows that in general, women are less likely than men to have excessive confidence in themselves. They are also more inclined than men to pay real attention to negative feedback, which they deem to be more useful than men do. Finally, the more experienced the managers, the more capable they are of correctly discerning the negative feedback that requires immediate attention.e.

Tip: Pay attention to the composition of the team dealing with customer feedback. Women and experienced managers are better at correctly assessing customers’ views.

#3 The longer the customer’s feedback remarks, the greater are managers’ impressions that they have enough information, and the more comfortable they feel in their evaluation of the feedback, but the less precise are their interpretations of customer levels of satisfaction.

Tip: Pay particular attention to the longest customer feedback comments. Managers tend to underestimate client dissatisfaction. It is all the more important, however, when the client has taken the time to submit such feedback – which is in itself a form of commitment to the company's brand or value proposition.

#4 The use of words expressing negative emotions (“bad”, “fear”, “angry”, “disappointed”) or positive ones (“super”, “nice”, “great”), have no significant impact on management estimates of the degree of customer dissatisfaction. In negative feedback, clients sometimes use words linked to positive emotions, in which case the feedback might be “ambiguous”. Nevertheless, this ambiguity is not a factor that influences the perceptions of the managers in our sample.

Tip: Be careful not to let the expression of positive emotions lead to underestimations of negative views.

#5 Our study shows that the way one expresses an opinion of a product or service can significantly influence the reader’s perception of it and the probability of receiving a reply. Is it up to the customer to adapt to that, or should the firm improve its way of assessing client feedback? The question remains an open one.

Tip: An evaluation that is primarily aimed at identifying the basic arguments made by the customer, through a defined framework, appears to be the most useful solution to developing an appropriate response, and simultaneously to improve both the value proposition and customer relations.

[1] Michael Antioco, Kristof Coussement, Misreading of consumer dissatisfaction in online product reviews: Writing style as a cause for bias, International Journal of Information Management, 2018

[2] Five hundred and seven marketing managers working on customer feedback read opinions posted online – positive, neutral, and negative – of three kinds of products: laptop computers, music players, and a software download service. The 1,014 client opinions posted online, from which the “stars” had been removed, were downloaded from an internet platform.  Each customer feedback was read by five different managers. Each manager had to rate the degree of client satisfaction expressed in 10 different opinions on a scale of 0 to 10.

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