You can’t please all the people all the time. Negative feedback is a fact of life, even for businesses that provide great CX. Sadly, it can take its toll on customer-facing staff and even drain your resources disproportionately.

Take social media. Brands are realizing that social can be an echo chamber for negative feedback. It motivates the unhappiest customers to skew the overall spectrum of customer opinion. And brands feel compelled to respond in order to minimize the impact of that negativity.

Feedback emanating from social media is self-selecting and can never be representative. This self-selecting bias is the same problem faced by lengthy customer questionnaires – only those driven by extreme emotions are likely to respond.

What you should do with negative feedback

The best practice approach to customer feedback goes beyond measuring it to acting upon it. We recommend putting plans in place to react appropriately whenever bad feedback comes in. That would involve contacting the individual to ask what could be done better to improve their experience. Establishing and closing feedback loops is a great measure for ensuring these steps are not missed or left too long. You should have similar mechanisms in place for positive feedback too.

As humans – and businesspeople – we instinctively seek to remedy negativity. If not to switch it completely to outright positivity then at least to neutralize it to some safe space in the middle. It’s second nature, but does it actually the best use of your limited time and resources?

The paradox of addressing your most unhappy customers

NPS (Net Promoter Score) is a tried-and-trusted framework for segmenting customers based upon their propensity to recommend you to others. “Promoters” are the happy bunnies in this model; unpaid advocates spreading powerful word-of-mouth marketing. “Detractors” are the arsonists, damaging your reputation and influencing others negatively.

Most organizations tend to prioritize elevating this second group as a priority. The thinking is simple. The fewer arsonists there are, the less unpredictable impact will be wrought on your company.

Author Leonard Berry’s zone of tolerance concept is a useful way of explaining what’s going on here. Berry’s idea is that the extremes of negative and positive experience can be defined as such because they are memorable. Something a “little bit” negative probably isn’t memorable, and the same is true of something slightly positive. For the most part, he argues, if it isn’t memorable then it isn’t particularly consequential. This explains the zone of tolerance; the gap between the two ‘memorable’ extremes where most perceptions of experience lie.

zone of tolerance customer experience

Customers within the zone of tolerance aren’t necessarily happy. Some are, just not quite happy enough for things to be memorable. Likewise, others will be unhappy with their experience being somewhat underwhelming or barely adequate – but still tolerating it.

And this is where companies need to consider how best to spend their resources. Let’s take a few scenarios:

Customer traversing within the zone of tolerance

In this scenario is a customer who is quite unhappy, but forgettably so. Time and effort is spent endeavoring to make them happier and more satisfied. The result is a more positive experience, albeit still forgettable. The question is whether this effort was worthwhile.

Customer going from memorably negative to memorably positive

Here, you’ve moved heaven and earth to shift a customer from really disliking their experience to thinking the opposite. The key question is, how likely are you to be able to do this efficiently?

Customer forgetting their negativity

In this example, the customers’ “memorably negative” stance has been addressed to the extent that they now occupy the zone of tolerance. Perhaps you’ve catapulted them into the upper echelons, or they might just be scraping over the line. In any case, they are no longer a danger.

Customer transcending forgettability into a memorably great experience

In this final case, you’ve taken a customer from the upper reaches of the zone of tolerance into memorability. You are now more valuable to each other. Again the question is, was the effort worth it?

The received wisdom always seems to be that elevating the worst detractors makes the greatest sense. It certainly seems to be the gut-feel response, but does it stand up to scrutiny?

Are middling customers the real goldmine?

Forrester did some fascinating research about this issue, which is documented in the bestselling “Power of Moments” book by Chip and Dan Heath. They found that companies tended to prioritize disgruntled customers over ‘middling’ customers.

Researchers asked a number of companies how much emphasis they’d place on two plans. Plan A aims to cure the company of seriously disgruntled customers. Plan B aims to elevate middle-of-the-road customers into being more positive. On average, they found about 80% of effort going into Plan A.

That might seem reasonable, but not according to the underlying data. Forrester found that the most positive customers not only spend more than the most negative but also have more (about twice as much) to spend on applicable goods and services. And on top of that, there are dramatically more people in the middling to positive group than in the most negative group. In short, the negative customers create a lot of noise but quieting them down doesn’t really move the needle on revenue. Despite this, customers are inclined to spend energy on them disproportionately.

By focusing mainly on Plan A, you reach very few customers and can only succeed in driving marginally increased revenue. By focusing more on Plan B, you reach a far larger cohort and stand to increase revenue to a much greater extent. Forrester calculated that following Plan B resulted in x9 times the revenue gain of Plan A!

We’d love to live in a world with no negative feedback, but that’s not going to happen. And if it did, how could you improve your products and services?

The key to customer experience success isn’t just knowing how to measure feedback but how to act on it too. You can start right now with a free Customer Thermometer trial – just fill out the form below (no payment details are necessary).