Researchers study ways to de-escalate customer anger on social media

By our News Team | 2022

While customer complaints on digital platforms are rising markedly, less than a third are currently being settled amicably.

Researchers from four international universities have published a new paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Marketing that shows how businesses can de-escalate customer anger on social media sites by using language that signals active listening and empathy.

The study was carried out by a team from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands, LUISS University in Italy, Dartmouth College in the US, and Babson College in the US.

Customer Relations

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

They note that social media is rife with angry customers venting their grievances about brands and companies, and quote the latest Customer Rage Study which found the number of customers who prefer to register complaints via digital platforms, rather than by phone or in-person, tripled in three years. 

The study also found that 48% of consumers in the United States rely on social media to gauge other people’s experiences with products and services.

What should worry companies is that less than one-third of the respondents indicated being satisfied with service recoveries and two-thirds expressed anger after a failure, the researchers said.

They also reported that the anonymity provided by social media has boosted expressions of anger and many firms struggle to offer effective responses to dissatisfied customers. Failing to de-escalate anger may be a critical reason that many companies fail in their recovery attempts.

Although recent research indicates that firms should address public complaints to limit the detrimental effects on other customers, it is unclear which response strategies are best suited to de-escalate angry customers and evoke a feeling of gratitude in the person making the complaint on social media. 

Two effective response strategies

Using natural language processing on real social media complaints and in controlled experiments, this research team explains two effective response strategies that firms could adopt to de-escalate negative arousal and enhance costumer gratitude in social media: active listening and empathy.

  • Active listening implies paying attention to customers’ complaints and following up by demonstrating that concern through actions such as repeating, paraphrasing, or adapting the language to the customer.
  • Empathy involves connecting at an emotional level with complaining customers by indicating understanding of their feelings using explicit expressions of validation and affirmation.

“When dealing with highly aroused consumers on social media, increasing active listening and empathy in a firm’s response evokes gratitude, even if the actual failure is not yet recovered,” the research team observed.

They added that their “three field studies show that increasing active listening by 1% increases the probability of customer gratitude by up to 14%, while increasing empathy by 1% increases the probability of customer gratitude by up to 90%. Thus, compared to active listening, empathy is a stronger lever to enhance desired outcomes.”

In a text-based context, active listening concerns the style of the response (i.e., linguistic style matching) and empathy is related to the content of the response (i.e., using empathetic words).

These findings offer easy-to-implement actions that will help for-profit firms, non-profit organisations, and governmental agencies that handle complaints via social media. 

“Since social media interactions are often driven by high arousal and negative emotions, we hope our findings not only change the way companies deal with angry customers, but also make interaction partners more receptive to each other’s perspective and have better social media conversations,” say the researchers.

While past research often focused on how companies could resolve customers’ problems and this research explores methods to de-escalate anger, a combination of both is a potential direction for future research. Sometimes it might be warranted to first solve the problem and then de-escalate the negative high-arousal emotions, while at other times it might be best to prioritise de-escalation.

Find out more about the research paper here.

Dr Kin Kariisa

Group CEO - Next Media

Dr. Kin Kariisa is an extraordinary force at the helm of Next Media Services, a conglomerate encompassing NBS TV, Nile Post, Sanyuka TV, Next Radio, Salam TV, Next Communication, Next Productions, and an array of other influential enterprises. His dynamic role as Chief Executive Officer exemplifies his unwavering commitment to shaping media, business, and community landscapes.
With an esteemed academic journey, Dr. Kariisa’s accolades include an Honorary PhD in exemplary community service from the United Graduate College inTexas, an MBA from United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya, a Master’s degree in Computer Engineering from Huazong University in China, and a Bachelor’s degree in Statistics from Makerere University.
Dr. Kariisa pursued PhD research in Computer Security and Identity Management at Security of Systems Group, Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands. As a dynamic educator, he has shared his expertise as a lecturer of e-Government and Information Security at both Makerere University and Radboud University.

Dr Kin did his PhD research in Computer Security and Identity Management at Security of Systems Group, Radbond University in Nigmegen, Netherlands. He previously served as a lecturer of e-Government and Information Security at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda and Radbond University in Netherlands.

Dr Kin did his postgraduate courses in Strategic Business Management, Strategic Leadership Communication and Strategies for Leading Successful Change Initiatives at Harvard University, Boston USA.

  • Other current and previous roles played by Dr Kin Kariisa:
  • Lecturer of e-Government and Information Security to graduate students at Makerere University, Kampala and Radbond University in the Netherlands
  • Director of Eco Bank Uganda Limited, one of the largest banks in Africa
  • Chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters, an umbrella industry association for all Television, Radio and online broadcasters in Uganda.
  • Chairman of Board of Directors of Nile Hotel International, that owns the leading hotel in Uganda, Kampala Serena Hotel.
  • Chairman of Board of Directors of Soliton Telmec Uganda, the leading telecom company in Optic fibre business managing over 80% of optic fibre in Uganda.