Real insight is born from real hatred

Tom Sanders
By Tom Sanders | 16 July 2014

When it comes to customer loyalty and experience, we’re familiar with the idea that brands should strive to delight their customers. But is there any profit in trying to upset or annoy them?

Fortunately, brands don’t really need to try. Like it or not, we are walking a tightrope of consumer opinion and expectation and it is increasingly easy to tumble off. Sometimes all it takes is one unexpected incident for a squeaky clean brand to find itself spiralling into negative backlash.

Pop onto any social media channel and it won’t be long before you find someone complaining about…well, you name it. From cancelled flights to poor service, from missed deliveries to offensive Twitter posts, there’s always someone ready to vent their frustration to the wider world.

Of course there are many different provocations to consumer outrage; a brand that is clearly insensitive to cultural opinion or taboo probably deserves its naming and shaming. But for those that fail their customers, or make a change they don’t approve of, anger can actually be helpful.

Who would you rather learn from? The average customer settling for an ordinary experience, or the unhappy customer demanding the extraordinary? Whether they know it or not, a customer complaining is really a customer trying to help. Anyone making such an effort to communicate directly with you is trying to tell you something that matters – and for that reason alone you should listen.

For these customers something crucial about the brand has changed, been forgotten or been mistreated. That’s worth paying attention to – even if you don’t agree with them.

For years we have sought to transform companies into people by crafting them personalities, values and a ‘tone of voice’. We succeed when consumers develop powerful emotional bonds with these, so we shouldn’t be surprised when people are upset that brands misbehave or act in opposition to their essence.

If we’re going to spend significant time, money and effort trying to be consumers’ friends, we need to be equally insightful when we make them our enemies. Consumer rage is really a sign of marketing’s rude health, of an industry that is succeeding in creating genuine connections in their audience’s minds.

So next time the internet explodes into fury at some perceived insult or catastrophe, think twice before lurching into ‘crisis management’ and instead focus on ‘opportunity management’ – how to make the vitriol valuable, and how to prosper from your punishment.

Previously, consumers would have simply switched their business elsewhere. Now at least we have a chance to try and make amends.

Successful companies take their haters seriously. They look for the real cause of their anger, and seek to fix those problems. So what should a brand do when it creates such fury? There’s a number of simple steps – all centred on taking an empathetic, intuitive response.

Let the angry customer speak their mind; enquire what they are so concerned about and try to get to the root cause of the problem. Don’t give instant solutions or insincere apologies, instead, thank them for taking the time to help you improve yourself. Don’t try to win or prove why you’re right, but try to work with them to make things right. Ask them what they think a fair and appropriate solution is and then consider how to make this a reality.

A customer who walks away is a customer lost. A customer who criticises is really complimenting you, even if they don’t know it. So next time someone is furious at your brand, thank them sincerely for their help and remember – their outrage is good for your business.

Tom Sanders is head of strategy at Play Communications

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