Tom van Laer Tom van Laer foto: Sacha Ruland

“Companies would do better to apologise.”

In Money
Written by  Margot Krijnen Sunday, 02 October 2011 13:53

Dr Tom van Laer earned his PhD from Maastricht University on how companies can best respond to negative reviews in social media.  


Van Laer starts with a blog story on American Airlines. “This airline flies regularly between London and Chicago. In 2008, two years after Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth came out, there were only five passengers on one of these flights. American Airlines decided to fly anyway. Environmentalists found this ridiculous: using tons of kerosene when the same flight would depart one hour later with enough seats available. They posted the story on the internet and thousands of people commented on the company’s irresponsible behaviour. Subsequently, their sales figures collapsed. The momentum was awful – the whole world was focused on environmental issues and the company should have cancelled the flight. They should have known the clients would immediately penalise them. And once it happened, they should have responded adequately. ”


This is just one of many stories. Countless negative reviews circulate all over the internet. “The internet has drastically changed the interaction between companies and consumers”, says Van Laer. “150 years ago, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe played an important role in galvanising public opinion against slavery. That was a novel written by one individual. Can you imagine the impact of a medium as powerful as the internet? In the past 150 years, communication has mostly been one-sided, from the company to the customer. Today, the power of the narrative has returned as consumers get to be part of the conversation. Marketing communication has become symmetrical. Lots of internet users update their profile pages on Facebook, MySpace or other social media sites. Whether in the form of blogs or profile pages, they share written stories or photos and videos about themselves and their experiences, and narratives have the power to change our beliefs.”


“The phenomenon of transportation, or mentally entering a narrative, plays a crucial role in persuasion by stories. Here’s why. People find stories entertaining for two reasons: First, they imagine the events the main character experiences. Second, they feel for the character. In 1993, Professor Richard Gerrig of Yale University published research in which he observed that people who find reading novels entertaining are changed by their reading experience. Readers who become engrossed in the story tend to accept the story as true, and the beliefs and behaviours that the characters exhibit as good. Reviews on the internet have exactly that kind of power. They can heavily influence people’s opinions on products, companies and even people.”


Could company employees who have to respond to the internet comments also be transported by the stories? Van Laer: “After the global financial crisis set in, many people posted stories about how their bankers did not pay enough attention to them. In these stories, the customer is the main character and the banker is the bad guy. Naturally, bankers are not easily transported into such a story. Instead, their first reaction is to dispute the story and claim to indeed be oriented towards the client. I wondered whether it might be possible to help bankers become transported by focusing their attention in the story on the customer’s interest. You can redirect people’s focus by priming them with words. I took a dozen words, including compassion, moved, soft-hearted, sympathy, tender and warm, and asked a group of bankers from a large financial institution to find these words in a word-search puzzle. I then presented them with a story about a client’s negative experience with a bank, along with the question of who was at fault. While bankers who hadn’t done the word-search puzzle laid the blame and responsibility primarily with the client, those who had done the puzzle tended to see themselves as more at fault. So from my research, it appears that you can transport people in a relatively simple manner. Although bankers are the bad guys in many stories, even they can be transported.”


So how can companies best respond to bad reviews, and who should do so? “Companies are used to arguing their case. If you submit a complaint, you get an explanation in return. But if there’s one thing complaining consumers don't want to hear, it’s a dry list of facts. People who vent their emotions on the internet want those emotions to be accepted. They want emotional relief. The best thing is to allow for that emotion. Therefore, companies would do better to issue an apology and then tell the story from their perspective. Because an excuse in itself indicates that you’re showing emotion; that you’re allowing for the other person’s emotion. Whether a company is at fault or not, you can always apologise for what the customer is going through. And it’s better when this story is told by someone from the shop floor, instead of the company’s spokesperson. People find a response from a spokesperson cheap. Moreover, a spokesperson is trained to present statements and arguments, whereas a front-line employee – the real service employee – is just an ordinary person who’s in direct contact with the customers. That employee can put a human face on the story. In fact, social media are about people sharing stories.”

Tom van Laer (Geleen, 1983) studied Business Communication Research and International Business Communication, and received a Master of Arts from the University of Nijmegen. From 2008, he was a doctoral candidate at the UM School of Business and Economics, where he lectured on responsible employee behaviour. This autumn, he will join the ESCP Europe Business School as an assistant professor on the Paris campus.

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