Shreyas Kulkarni
Points of View

What's the best way for brands to handle disgruntled consumers venting on social media?

Where does customer grievance end, and social media bullying begin? Learnings from Gaurav Kapur versus Swiggy, and Mini Mathur versus Veneta Cucine India.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in 'Anna Karenina'.

We (afaqs!) are adding a modern (read digital) update to this sentence and it now reads, “All happy customers are alike; every unhappy customer is unhappy in his own way.”

Take this exchange between actor and media personality Gaurav Kapur, who was unhappy with food delivery app Swiggy’s delayed delivery of his grocery order. But what seemed to have pushed him over the edge was Swiggy’s response.

Customers sometimes need to take a stern tone to assert themselves and make a brand realise what went wrong. But sometimes, they forget that they are speaking to a human on the other side of the screen, and not a bot (unless specified).

When brands see honest customer feedback take a nasty turn, it puts them in a difficult position. Do they stick to the brand guidelines and take one for the team, or do they take a stand?

In an ideal world, both the brand and the customer will meet halfway, because it’s a give and take relationship. If both are having bad days, one can expect to see wild fireworks online for days.

What's the best way for brands to handle disgruntled consumers venting on social media?

While Kapur’s tiff with Swiggy was a disgruntled customer asking the brand to respond, we also came across a snapshot between celebrity Mini Mathur and Veneta Cucine India, a modular kitchen brand. While the details are still unclear, it (the snapshot) shows that Mathur asked people to not choose the brand which, in turn, said it had responded to all her queries and its legal team will now contact her.

Two different customer experiences, but for brands, it’s an everyday experience. Customers message them, but sometimes, it crosses the line. So, what should brands do?

We caught up with a trio of experts to know whether brands should stand up when customer grievance/feedback crosses the line, or stay calm and let it pass.

Edited excerpts:

Ashwin Varkey, director, FatMen (an advertising agency)

Ashwin Varkey
Ashwin Varkey

A lot of times, it depends on who runs the brand. Sometimes, you have decisive leaders… I remember an incident when Zomato took a 'woke' stance when a customer refused food delivery by a Muslim (man). It was a ballsy move and a fantastic decision, and it’s possible when brands are run by a decisive leader. It’s not possible in big companies, where there are a lot of hierarchies.

Sometimes, people say, don’t get into controversies. For many years, brands have been passive. They will give free coupons and pander to customers a lot, which spoils them. Some people now think, “Let’s try our luck.”

But honest customers want to genuinely see their grievances getting addressed. You need to believe that most people are good and don’t do this (harassing). But there is a small bunch of people who cry for attention.

Brands can’t ignore such customers at the start, because he or she will get irate and then somebody will have to do damage control…. After a while, brands will begin to ignore such people.

Brands need contingency plans for such scenarios. The concerned brand person should know when to escalate a situation and to whom… But nobody wins here.

Akanksha Patankar Mirji, brand and corporate storyteller

Akanksha Patankar Mirji
Akanksha Patankar Mirji

Say, a woman has taken a property loan from a bank 20 years ago and her husband was the guarantor. Six to seven years after the loan was sanctioned, the couple get divorced.

The court order says that the property is in her name. She visits the bank in the city, where the loan was issued, to change her last name. However, for whatever reason, the bank is unable to do so.

Now, she has remarried. But the name change on her documents has (still) not happened... each time there’s any communication from the bank, it carries the old last name that obviously annoys her and her new partner. The bank’s inability to change the name could be due to a small step in the redressal system, such as she needed a new guarantor.

The woman, a genuine customer, will harass the bank when it isn’t able to resolve her issue, because there is a breaking point for everyone.

A brand can’t tell a customer that you are harassing us, without getting to the bottom of the problem. If everything the woman has asked for is in place (letters, messages, emails, etc.), the bank is fully within its right to say that you (the woman) are harassing us if she starts using abusive language, which is not alright.

Customers and brands need to have empathy, and realise humanism plays a role here. Resolution is better than confrontation.

Nitin Sethi, VP, digital, IndiGo Airlines

Nitin Sethi
Nitin Sethi

Aviation is a highly regulated industry and there are strict norms. But every brand has flexibility when it comes to generic issues. IndiGo is built on four core pillars: (it is) on time, hassle-free, (has) affordable fares and a great network. All our pillars revolve around the customer.

There are occasions when a celebrity or an influencer will try to use his or her reach... Our focus is on our customers and we don’t differentiate between them.

If the complaint is related to standard stuff like seat location or missed flight, we focus on customer empathy. We try and give the benefit of the doubt to the customer till the time it (the issue) is not caught in the regulations set by the government.

On social media, if someone says that our fare is too high, food isn’t good, or you’re charging for every service… it is our set model…. Ultimately, the brand has to run and be profitable. We create jobs… everything is checked for consistency and quality, and a price needs to be set.

Our focus is always on customer retention. But at times, when somebody is crossing regulations, we don’t have a choice but to report him/her...

… mistakes do happen, but as a brand, we always go and rectify it and take a responsible call. It’s a 14-year-old company, with a 55 per cent market share. Every employee is empowered to make sure that the customer is delighted (satisfied)... We believe in the return of experience, and not return on investment. It has given us amazing market share and also the love of customers.