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Brain Chemistry and How Not to Take Complaints Personally

Authors: Jay Baer Jay Baer
Posted Under: Customer Experience
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Brain Chemistry and How Not to Take Complaints Personally
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In modern social media customer service, it’s important to answer every customer complaint in every channel, every time. That’s the thesis of my new book, Hug Your Haters.

But almost no companies follow that advice. Instead, they answer some complaints, in some channels, some of the time.

One reason businesses don‘t answer every customer is that the hate hurts too much.

It‘s easy to take complaints personally and become bitter and cynical about the entire customer interaction process. This is especially true for small businesses.

Ouch. When Customers Say Your Baby Is Ugly

Wade Lombard from Square Cow Moovers recalls his first review—a one-star review on Yelp: “I read it and literally didn‘t sleep for three nights. How many people saw this review? It terrified me,” he said. “And it made me want to stick my head in the sand and say, ‘You know what? We can‘t fight this. We can‘t deal with online consumer reviews. We just need to keep working hard to make every client happy.’

He’s right about the importance of reviews. In fact:

80% of Americans trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations

Neurochemistry Explains Why We Want to Hide

The fear isn‘t triggered only by concern for the ramifications of a bad review; it‘s also biological, and wholly natural. In a Harvard Business Review article, Judith and Richard Glaser explain the neurochemistry of conversations, and why our first reaction to negativity is often to hide from it:

“Chemistry plays a big role in this phenomenon. When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalized or minimized, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors. We become more reactive and sensitive. We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than actually exists. And these effects can last for 26 hours or more”

Nearly four in 10 haters in social media expect a response within an hour, yet the physiological impact of negativity on our brains and our judgment can last 26 hours. That’s a recipe for a poorly handled response.

They Are Mad At the Situation, Not You

Your front-line customer service team needs to be filled with people who are equal parts level-headed and even-handed. That‘s often easier said than done, though, especially for small business owners who are forced to defend “their baby” against attacks that are easy to take personally.

In his book, The Customer Rules, Lee Cockerell provides outstanding and practical advice for how to keep your wits about you in this situation:

“When a customer has a tantrum, it is vital not to take it personally,” Cockerall wrote. “The anger is not about you—the customer doesn‘t even know you or care about you—it is about a situation. He‘s been disappointed or frustrated. Maybe she feels ripped off. The complaint may be totally unreasonable, and the reaction may be way over the top. Or not. Either way, it‘s not about you. It‘s about the circumstances.”

Businesses sometimes choose not to respond to complaints even when they don‘t feel personally attacked, but because they disagree with the customers‘ opinion and believe that replying adds credence where none is deserved.

The Pride Factor Gets In The Way

“I think small business owners, and people in general, have pride, and there can be a belief that to respond to complaints is to dignify them. That to respond to complaints is to validate them. Some small businesses don‘t want to say they were wrong. They don‘t want to say they‘re sorry, explains Dave Kerpen from Likeable Media.
Unless they are fictitious or nefarious in some other way, however, every complaint is “true” from the perspective of the hater. Customers may have unrealistic expectations. There may have been extenuating circumstances.
They may have been misled by their perspective or a simple misunderstanding, a scenario so common it often drives story lines of television shows like Three‘s Company and Curb Your Enthusiasm as well as the films of Akira Kurosawa and Alfred Hitchcock.

In short, what the customer believes to have happened is what happened, in their head and in their world. Ignoring this and refusing to reply to complaints because you disagree with the assertions and do not want to unjustly dignify them, is a textbook case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Remember: haters aren‘t your problem, ignoring them is.

Drawn from my new book Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers, about which Guy Kawasaki says:

“This is a landmark book in the history of customer service.”

Buy the book directly from me now and receive instant digital access (before the book launches officially March 1) PLUS get a ton of exclusive, pre-order bonuses worth thousands of dollars. For more information, visit

Hug Your Haters

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