Business highly depends on customers and their ongoing interest in your products and services. If something fails, customer service is the first place they turn to, and the way you manage their complaints can make a world of difference in a brand's success. So, what are some ways to improve customer service?

PissedConsumer.com invited a Ph.D. in Marketing, Richard J. George, to a video interview to talk about marketing strategies and customer service. Dr. George is a Professor of Food Marketing at Saint Joseph's University and has over 40 years of experience in marketing.

Trends are set by consumers, and good companies follow them.

Watch this video interview to learn more about consumer issues and how to handle complaints. Uncover the best marketing tips on how to improve your brand image and celebrate success.

 

Questions covered in this video interview with a marketing expert:

Introduction

Dr. George: My name is Richard George, Ph.D. in Marketing with Professor Emeritus or a Professor at St. Joseph's University for 40 years now, professor emeritus, and during those 40 years, I spent time as a professor, written about a dozen different books, did work consulting, did a lot of public speaking for trade groups and companies on marketing strategy but also on customer service. Currently, I do a fair amount of expert witness work being called on for customer service and food marketing issues.

Basically, we're farm to table. We're not on the agricultural side. Once it gets to the manufacturing plant, we're concerned with what happens till he gets to the table, whether that table stops at a restaurant, or whether that table goes to a food retail store. So it's everything. Our students go to work for Colgate and Hershey's and Nielsen, and they go to work for Whole Foods and Amazon and Walmart and the like.

Should Companies Hide Negative Consumer Reviews?

Michael: Some companies choose to censor consumer feedback on their websites. They leave positive reviews. They completely remove negative reviews. It's absolutely great for the consumer because when that happens all that traffic just goes to Pissed Consumer and others like ours. But how do you feel about it?

Dr. George: Companies have to have somebody monitoring them every day, but the solution is not simply to remove them. The solution is to address them because as they say and as you said, it just winds them up more. They're on Google. They're on Yelp. They're on your site. There's a ton of sites where they can go and express their point of view, and for the most part, consumers today, good consumers will look at neutral sites like yours before you look at the company's sites because they know there's bias.

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What Do Consumers Complain Most About?

Michael: In your perspective, what do consumers complain most about?

Dr. George: Well, my area of expertise is in food marketing. So if I looked at the food marketing side, you can break it down into three aspects: the manufacturers, the food retailers, and food service.

Performance Issue

Dr. George: The things you see on your site, it comes down to what I consider to be a performance issue for the most part. I bought something. I bought this tractor, and it doesn't work. So most of those are performance-based, although often times it comes out as a price issue. But it's not really a price, Michael. It's a value, which is - what do you get for, what you pay for. So it looks like a performance issue.

Quality, Service and Cleanliness

Dr. George: When you come down the retail channel, and I do a lot of work in the food service industry. If you look there, it's probably three things. It's the quality of the product. It's the service. And it's the whole issue of cleanliness. Those are the three things that come out.

You have off-shoots. For example, I didn't like my table, surroundings issue. Again, you have price issues, but not direct price issues. No one goes to a restaurant, sees something for $40, and then later on complains. When they complain, they say, "That was a $40 steak that didn't taste good. I didn't get my value."

Out of Stock & Checkout Issues

Dr. George: Then the third arena is the retail food service. And again, similar things to what you saw in food service, issues of quality and service and cleanliness. But also what really winds people off of food service is when something is out of stock.

I mean, we've seen, that's been exacerbated by the pandemic, but that certainly is an issue. What really winds somebody even more than that is something that is out of code. They take it home, they go to prepare the meal or they go to open the product, and it's been out of code for three months. So things like that.

The other thing at retail that is an issue is checkout, the speed of checkout, how checkout is handled. But those are the kinds of things that usually come to the forefront in the food market arena. Starting with the manufacturer, did they deliver as promised, ending with the food retailer, did they make the goods available in a timely fashion, convenient, in a friendly atmosphere?

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Should Companies Notify Consumers of Changes in Products?

Michael: If you look at some of the food industry complaints on Pissed Consumer, there is one item that stands out such as they changed a recipe without notifying. How do you feel about this complaint?

Manufacturers, food manufacturers have to adjust due to cost issues, delivery issues, whatever that might be. They need to have the ability to adjust. And the product comes out with the same name as opposed to the one before, but now the recipe is different. It tastes different. How do you feel about it?

Dr. George: When you say recipe, I think you're talking about the ingredients on the can. It's changed. It's the same name on the front. I think again, it's like the situation we talked about Tyson. You need to be transparent. There's nothing wrong with saying, "This is why we changed it. We took some salt out. We did this." Because otherwise people are left to, "Why did they do this? Are they trying to pull something over?" Usually what happens…

 ...they make these changes and never think about what is happening on the consumer end. 

Usually, the changes are made for processing, pricing, and raw materials, lots of reasons which are valid, but they're just not shared. I don't think they think about that.

Michael: How do you suggest manufacturers shall share the information?

Dr. George: You know what? It's ironic because what shows up as a problem could be a tremendous opportunity. For example, suppose we took out some of the salt. I would flag that other package, new and improved. I would talk about what the differences are, point one.

Point two, I think these things should be on their website, but as you say, people are walking down the supermarket aisle. They're more prone to look at that. So if you have a change, tell the consumer any way you can, a shelf tag, product tag, new and improved, ingredients were changed.

Then if you're on the website, you can explain some stories because not all ingredient changes are positive. "We took this out because of this reason. We could not get this raw material, so we substituted this. We hope that it still meets your taste palate."

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How to Handle Consumer Complaints?

Dr. George: My advice to companies when someone complains or someone suggests something negative, the first thing we have to do is say, "I'm sorry."

...unfortunately, most of us think when we say, "I'm sorry,"... we think we're saying, "I'm guilty." 

You address the person first, and I think that people can be very contrite if you're contrite and you're transparent. "We made a mistake. This is a terrible thing," as opposed to trying to put a spin on it.

I mean, markets are not stupid. I mean, they can see what's going on, and they will forgive. I mean, you do lose a lot of trust, and trust is something hard to reestablish.

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What to Do If You’re Listed on PissedConsumer.com?

Michael: Tell us a little bit, how did you stumble upon our website and how long have you been familiar with us?

Dr. George: It's relatively recent. I've written a total of five books on customer power, and if I may just digress for a moment. I wrote those books because I had written several books for companies in terms of how to deliver better customer service, and I realized most companies, there are some exceptions which you have noted on Pissed Consumer.

But for the most part, companies are striving to do a better job, but consumers or customers could do more. That's how I got into it. And then I was just in the process of updating the most recent version to 2021. I said, let me just see what else is going on, and I had actually quoted you, folks, in a RetailWire article a few months back.

I said, "Let me take a look at this site," and there's some, for your viewers, if you haven't seen it or obviously they're looking at the video, go to the site. I love your statistics. I love your trends. I love the way that you've broken it down.

And I have a number of different folks who have done something comparable, but I like the way you've done it. I like your updates on the video on the coronavirus. I like Marc Randazza's point of view. I mean, it's some good stuff and I highly recommend people pick and choose based on their needs.

Michael: What would you recommend to the brands that are listed on Pissed Consumer?

Dr. George: Yeah. Well, first of all, remember she said, "By the time they get to you, they may be twisted up a notch or two." But I mean, I always tell people I like Pissed Consumer, and I like these websites because what's the alternative?

If they don't complain, something that I can see as a company, what they do is they grumble. Do you know what grumbles are? They tell everybody but you. And guess what? They disappear and take all their friends with them.

So I look at a complaint as a moment of opportunity. Here's a chance to fix something… my research has shown that just by responding to the person, even if you haven't adequately or totally or fully addressed their complaint, people feel better.

That's why the comment I made earlier, just reach out. Say, "I'm sorry you had this situation. Please give us time. Let us address it."

I think that we look at these sites as one way, everything coming in. I think that everybody should be monitoring Pissed Consumer every day, these companies, and responding back to customers, or at least taking it into their weekly meetings and say, "We have an issue here. You can see the trend. You can see the threat." So, I mean, it's a great opportunity.

I mean, you guys have provided a great opportunity for these folks because you know why? It's visible. If it was just on a company's website, it might come into customer service, and it dies there. But the whole world could look at including the CEO or the vice president of marketing and say, "What the heck's going on here?"

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Should a Company Respond to Consumer Complaints?

Dr. George: But by the way, I mean, those companies who don't wish to respond to those consumers, I mean, do that at your own risk. They're your consumers. I mean, they have choices. I mean, they're very little in terms of brand monopoly.

There's another brand and what's the alternative? It goes somewhere else. You know what, going somewhere else is one thing, but if you're really wound up, remember. They tell the whole world. They're on your site. They're on Google reviews. They're on Yelp. They're on everywhere telling this story.

Why would you risk that? I mean, when you can have basically a pro bono way to respond. I mean, I love it. You go on to, let's say TripAdvisor. People say they didn't have a good experience. You watch the companies in which the general manager said, "Michael, I'm sorry that didn't work out. We've addressed that. Please reach out to me." I mean, people talk about that stuff. That's a positive coming from a negative.

An apology isn't enough. We have to see a change in behavior. We have to have some way we're trying to resolve your issue or whatever you do, Michael…

...you never want to argue with the consumer. Once you argue with her, you've lost her. You want to say, "I appreciate it. Give us a chance to fix it," but there's got to be action. But the action cannot be the reaction.

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Tips to Improve Customer Service

How to Improve Customer Service?

Michael: So you are on the marketing side. How do you bring value to companies as far as customer service is concerned?

Dr. George: That's a good question. Think about this. Think of a situation when you had an issue with customer service, whether it's you're at the gate or you're at the ticket counter at the airport or you're at a supermarket or you're checking out from Walmart or you bought something from a Home Depot, what most customer service issues manifest themselves as a people issue. But for reality, most customer service issues are systematic problems.

The best way I saw it years ago, a person was trying to go on a flight, and the person at the gate said, "Sir, Michael, I'm sorry. This is fully booked," and then went on and on and finally said, "Michael, do you think I have a seat on this plane and I just won't give it to you." I mean, and the person woke up, said, "You know what, ma'am? I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so aggressive."

So what I talk about are all the systems. I talk about all the ways we make customers compromise. A compromise is a simple word for doing what they don't want to do. And so if you look at a retail setting, let me give an example.

Systematic Issues Vs Customer Service-Employee Interaction

Dr. George: If I go up there, and I purchase something. I take it, and it scans. It doesn't scan. And they say, "Go get another one." Why should I get another one? Figure out a price. Let's just get out of here. So the system problems are, not underestimating the people, and the people issue is certainly a big one.

But for the most part, all my work had been designed. Let's look at all of your systems, every place in which a customer interacts with your company. That's a moment of truth. That's an opportunity whether it be calling in on the 800 line, whether it be placing an order, whether it be opening a product, every place you interact with your product and your associate is a moment of truth.

And the goal of companies is just to manage the heck out of them, make sure they're positive. So most of my work is on the system side, and I say this. At the end of the day, the lights go up, the curtain opens, you get to put on a good play. I mean, can you imagine the actors of Cats dressed in their civvies? Come on.

I mean, can you imagine lights not being right? Or can you imagine your music being off? There are all the things which are systematic, which may do a great job as suppliers, but the system has to support them.

The same thing, even more so, in terms of any kind of interaction in terms of manufacturer or retail or food service. Do you know what I mean? If you walk in there, you're at a restaurant, and you don't get a setup because they didn't wash the dishes. I mean, it looks like it's your server's fault, but it's not.

We have a tendency to be a little bit aggressive with the person who's waiting on us, not recognizing that's another... Another one, you go in there. You love the hot turkey, and the turkey's sold out. It's not the server's fault.

As a matter of fact, when you look at your consumer complaints on your website, and I will go back and look at them, how many of them were actually a system problem or a product problem versus a customer service-employee interaction. And I dare say a lot of them.

I mean, in the restaurant business, you get a little more interaction. I could see that where the server was rude, and that's certainly something that just falls on the people's side. But oftentimes, I'll bet you a lot of your complaints have to do something which is the system. You ordered a bike, and they forgot to put the handlebars in there. There's stuff like that.

The brand is a living organism. Everything you do affects the brand, it changes the brand. It reinforces the brand, or it denigrates the brand.

I think, and you actually said it, you have to manage expectations. I mean, and I think what happens is many companies over promise and under deliver. What's it going to do? Let's just tell people what. Let's not play funny games with them. Let's communicate with them sincerely, and that's a challenge in this environment because everybody's looking for a differential advantage. Mine is better than this, but only if it, A, means something to a consumer, and, B, you deliver on that.

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How Can Consumers Get What They Paid For?

Michael: How can consumers get what they paid for?

Dr. George: Well, a couple of things here. We kind of talked about this before. I mean, I think they have to say what they want, and at the end of the day, they may or may not get what they want.

One of the questions, which I think you had on the list is, in terms of what do you recommend for customers to get what they want and deserve? I don't want to wait till we get to the complaint. I want to start at the front end, and again, if you look at my website rjgeorge.com, my new book's up here, which I refer to Pissed Consumer.

But I talk about seven winning customer rules. And to me, the most important one is number two, do your homework. What do you want? What do you expect? What can this brand deliver? If you've done your homework going in, you reduce a lot of that banks later on. Because you know what? I should have known that.

And then the second part on my list, rule number six, I said, don't just grumble, complain. This is what we've already talked about. But a lot of it is on the front end.

I spend most of the book talking about how to do your homework and organize a plan so that you know. What are you going to give up, and what are you going to get? And this could be from you're buying a new car, a new computer. It probably is less so which brand of green beans am I going to buy? But it does have some merit in terms of forcing the customer to think about what they want and what they expect from this seller.

Michael: What recommendations would you give to a consumer when a consumer wants to leave proper feedback to the brand? What shall consumers speak about in their review to properly deliver the message to the brand?

Dr. George: Well, that's a terrific question. My website's a free download of the book, and I actually have a couple of letters in there, a handwritten letter and an email, in terms of what you should write to a company, the company contacts. And I think you should bring all the data.

This is what happened, dot, dot, dot, as much information, product, SKU, date of purchase, whatever it is. Give them some information. Tell them what happened, what went wrong.

Then the next question is, what do you expect in your sight? Would you expect a refund? Clearly, put your expectations down in terms of what you'd like them to do, and wherever possible pictures, anything that can support should be in that.

I would recommend email over snail mail in today's environment, but give them a chance first. I mean, there are some good websites with company contact information in terms of who you should write to because the difficulty is, Michael, if I go on the website of the company…

Again, in defense of a customer service person on the other end, they have their rules. "I'm sorry, sir. This doesn't fall within these rules. Goodbye. Good luck." And that's why often, if you have a phone call, you say, "Well, can I talk to the next person up," again, not denigrating the person who helped me.

So I think you've got to provide as much information, and I don't like, "You figure it out." I like the customer saying, "This is what I want. This is what I'm looking for." And then you can go from there.

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Do Consumers Influence the Industry?

Michael: Can consumers influence the industry?

Dr. George: Yes. They have a terrific opportunity, and you had another question about trends, who sets them.

Trends are set by consumers, and good companies follow them.

I mean, you look at examples in terms of where'd the gluten-free come from. One company didn't say, "I'm going to do gluten-free." Where did the plant-based foods come from? Where did you know online came from? But online you have the function of other trends.

People didn't want to go out, and you had the pandemic. So people do in fact set trends, and the good companies are the ones who respond to trends. My expression is, "We can't change the wind, but we can adjust our sails." What are we going to do differently here?

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Can Consumer Reviews Influence the Brand?

Michael: Can the reviews influence the brands?

Dr. George: Yeah. By the way, years ago the only way we really had input was by how we voted with our dollar. Now we have this great vehicle in that we can talk to companies, and the good companies are the ones that say, "You know what? We can do a better job right now."

I've seen an example for companies actually change procedures because of what people... I'll give you a good example, take Publix, a retailer down in Florida. Publix starts doing sandwiches, hoagies, subways, like submarines. What happened is the customer said the way they had the lines set up, it was a vertical line, Michael.

So you're third in line, and it seems like the first two are never going to get there. And then you finally get there to say, "Yeah, I'm here now." Well, what they did is they listen to consumers. Consumers said, "Why don't you do the line like Subway? Turn it around. So the whole time I order my role, I'm moving. Something's going on."

They actually listened to consumers. They changed their whole layout. Otherwise, how would they have known that? People would have just gone away, gone to Subway to order.

But people told them, "We like your sandwiches. We don't like the way we wait in line." It wasn't so much the wait, Michael. It was the perception of doing nothing. You're number three. But this way you're up here, and you're looking at how much lettuce I want. There's a good example of what listening to customers does. 

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Conclusion

Dr. George: My goal is what I do now, I do a lot of pro bono with women's groups and seniors and like talking about this whole issue of customer service. But I think there are three things I want to do.

I want people to get what they want without the accompanying stress. It shouldn't be stressful. We have enough stress. We've got COVID-19. We don't need freaking brands to create stress.

Second, I want to make sure that people get their money's worth. People work hard for their money. What do they do, and how are they going to make sure they get that?

And thirdly, I want to help people get relief, which is where you come in when they don't get their money's worth. That's my mantra. That's my goal right now.

Michael: Thank you. Thank you very much.

In this interview with a marketing expert, Dr. Richard J. George, we’ve uncovered some great insights and examples on how businesses can find weak spots, respond to consumer complaints, and improve customer service. 

Got questions? Please feel free to leave a comment below. If you’d like to know more on how PissedConsumer.com can help you build a better brand image through consumer reviews, visit our business solutions page.

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