Your customers suck

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” – Bill Gates

In today’s world, there are multiple ways for customers to voice their displeasure with your company. They can complain to management, share their displeasure on social media, write a negative review on Yelp or Google. Or, more simply, they never use your company’s services or repurchase your products.

The statistics are staggering. Studies estimate that there is a 91% chance an unhappy customer will not do business with a company again. Even more so, they are likely to tell nine to 15 other people while some may talk to 20 or more.

Mitigating a negative review is difficult. Research indicates that it takes approximately 40 positive reviews to make up for one negative review. Positive reviews are hard to get when only one in 10 happy customers write about their experience.

That said, Microsoft’s legendary co-founder Bill Gates is right. While we never aim to create a negative experience for our customers, they can be our best teachers. In “Mean People Suck: How Empathy Can Lead to Bigger Profits and Better Lives for Everyone,” I explain why understanding our customers’ feelings creates a win-win-win situation for them, the company, and ultimately us.

Technology’s disruption of Fortune 500 companies

The business landscape has shifted dramatically in the last 15 years. Technology has disrupted 52% of the Fortune 500 companies. Organizations that were brand names 30 years ago such as American Motors, Detroit Steel and Studebaker no longer exist. They’re not alone.

Two years ago, 190 of the Fortune 500 experienced negative growth from lost revenue, lost customers, lost market share, and the loss of talent. This is a reflection of the shortened anticipated life expectancy of companies today. In 1955, the life expectancy was 75 years. Sixty years later, it has been reduced to 15 years.

In short, digital disruption has changed consumer behavior. What used to be a linear customer journey now has the possibility of hundreds if not thousands of touchpoints. Additionally, brands now have to compete for our attention.

As of 2017, Fortune reported that 700 million smartphones were in use worldwide. Facebook has now reached upwards of 2 billion active users. Nearly half of the world’s population uses the Internet. In a matter of seconds, we can learn the capital of Qatar, find the number of calories in green peppers, and figure out the time it takes to drive to Albuquerque. We are constantly bombarded with messages and information, making attention a premium currency.

What irritates customers

Think about the last major purchase you made. My guess is you didn’t consult a salesperson first, but you went online to get a better understanding of your product and read reviews. According to, as much as 90 percent of business-purchase research happens before buyers reach out to the vendor they plan to choose.

A recent AdAge article profiled Proctor & Gamble because of their growth in 2018. They had experienced the most significant growth in five years, but it wasn’t because of increased advertising efforts. They had decreased their spend.

According to the Advertising Research Foundation, sales begin to decline after an ad reaches the same person 40 times in a month. In other words, if a company promotes itself twice to the same person on the same day, its sales will go down.

Lesson learned: excessive self-promotion from a company will hurt sales. Customers want content that is informative and interesting. They do not want to hear about how great a product or service is unless it helps them.

How to avoid ticking your customers off

Research proves that what was once the industry standard advertising tactics will now alienate customers, yet many brands seem to forget this fact.

Google executive Noah Fenn once said that businesses seem to have “collective amnesia” when they come up with ways to connect with customers. He suggests we forget what it’s like to be a real human being when we create marketing, advertising and products no one we wouldn’t read, consume, or buy ourselves. Not only does this thinking change marketing, but it changes the infrastructure of some of the biggest businesses in the world.

The truth is, the collective amnesia is going to result in angry customers. While it is not what any of us want, there are several lessons it can teach us.

Don’t assume you know it all

Remember the last time you someone offered you an unsolicited opinion? My guess is there is a high probability you walked away from that conversation feeling annoyed, and the phrase “Know It All” came to mind.

The same can be true for brands who fail to adapt to customer needs and desires. Think about the last lousy commercial you watched. You probably sat there and wondered how it was ever approved. Generally, it’s because of an executive who didn’t understand the target audience and thought he or she knew better. Behind every bad idea is an executive who asked for it.

Empower the people who know your customer best

When we think about the most influential people in an organization, we often go to management or those with the power to make critical decisions. However, when we shift to a customer-centered perspective, this changes.

Think about the people who know your customers best, likely your account managers or sales team. While they may not be at the top of the organization, the relationships they build with customers provide invaluable insights. They have a pulse on what is really going on and how your organization can best meet the needs and desires of your customer base. Empower those who have the highest customer-experience knowledge.

Don’t be a company that sucks

No one wants to be thought of as a “know it all” or be the decision-maker behind a bad commercial. By being willing to listen to our employees and customers, new possibilities open up, and we can shift our approach as needed. Even more so, the truth is the act of listening to others needs, and wants can benefit more than our company’s bottom line. It can improve our relationships and overall quality of life.

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