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

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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.