Hug Your Haters? How Empathy Helps Us Gain Customers For Life

May 8, 2023 | 0 comments

Before I sat down to write Mean People Suck, I read a lot of books that looked relevant to my research. When I first saw this title – Hug Your Haters – I thought, “Are you nuts? Why should I hug my haters?”

I mean, aren’t haters the very definition of mean people? And mean people, of course, suck.

But then I cracked it open and entered author Jay Baer’s universe. If you don’t know Jay, he’s a long time mentor of mine and someone I have looked up to for a while. Having entered the world of online marketing before most people, Jay has been inspiring audiences with his plaid-suited and inspiring keynotes at marketing conferences for more than a decade.

But this one idea of jay’s stands out above all the rest for me: Hug your haters? I’m in!

I discovered that hugging your haters is the ultimate expression of empathy. In fact, when you enter into your haters’ worldviews, you might learn something. Especially when it comes to your business.

Quick Takeaways

  • A huge disconnect in understanding exists between most US businesses and their customers regarding the level of customer service they provide.
  • Today’s unhappy customers don’t just read businesses the riot act privately – they blast their discontent all over the Internet.
  • With online haters’ influence growing with every second your business neglects to answer complaints, it’s time to try a new approach.
  • “Hugging your haters,” i.e., showing empathy to those who complain about your business, is the most effective way to get dissatisfied customers back on your side.

It’s Time to Face the Customer Service Disconnect

Did you realize that 80% of US businesses believe they provide their customers with superb customer service, yet only 8% of their customers think so?

Oops. Big disconnect.

That disconnect spurred Baer to advise businesses to embrace customer complaints — what he calls “hugging the haters.”

Today’s customers don’t just rant at you on the phone. They write out their rants on online reviews on third-party sites that have popped up all over the Internet like death cap mushrooms after a hard rain.

And, if you don’t take those complaints seriously, they will poison your business. You see, potential customers, as well as existing customers who don’t know you well, will read those reviews. If there isn’t an empathetic reply, they assume that they’re true.

Then they go elsewhere.

Listen to Your “Haters” to Transform the Way You Do Business

As Baer points out, one-third of all customers’ complaints receive not even as much as a reply. And, from what I’ve read online, the two-thirds of customers who do receive answers all too often receive a defensive reply.

Replies like these:

From the Small-Town Diner

“We tried to get in touch with you, but unfortunately, you didn’t leave your contact information.”

From the Local Outlet for an Upscale Shoe Brand

“Unfortunately, you didn’t have a receipt. Our policy is clearly stated on the back of your receipt. If you lost your receipt, regrettably, we cannot issue you a refund.” (This one came from a company that only sells its own branded merchandise. Obviously, the merchandise was their own.)

From a Casual Steakhouse

“We are sorry that you thought the waiter was rude. When we interviewed him after the incident, we discovered that he was only enforcing our policy of not offering non-alcoholic versions of our alcoholic drinks.”


Treat Even Your Company’s Haters with Empathy

How the Steakhouse Should Have Handled It

With more than 65% of deadly single-car wrecks caused by alcohol abuse, you wouldn’t offer the designated driver a virgin pina colada? What kind of policy is that?

That’s not empathy. That’s not hugging your haters. That’s CYA at its ugliest. And, though I’m not a lawyer, the last one looks like a lawsuit ready to happen. Unfortunately, poor management decisions regarding customer service are all too common in business these days.

Empathy, or as Baer puts it, “hugging your haters,” would look way different.

Baer took a deep dive into the science of complaint (yes, companies actually hire research firms to learn how much they have to lose when they ignore or fail to deal fairly with customer complaints). He discovered that no matter how trivial you believe complaints to be, you need to “answer every complaint, in every channel, every time.”

It might not seem fair to you, but even the most unreasonable of complaints have their genesis in a deep need that you can fulfill. And, when you do – if you do – you might just have a brand evangelist for life.

How the Small-Town Diner Could Have Made It Right

For example, the customer who didn’t leave her contact information on her complaint. She just lost her grandma, and she and her mom went to Grandma’s favorite restaurant to revel in happy memories. The last piece of Grandma’s favorite pie – cherry – was sold just before she ordered.

The granddaughter was devastated. She wanted to savor Grandma’s favorite in Gran’s favorite restaurant.

Instead of asking what Mom’s second-favorite pie was (even though both the daughter and granddaughter shared their story earlier with the server), the server said simply, “We’re all out of cherry. Do you want another kind of pie or what?”

Yes, the server was dog-tired after a day of serving unforgiving customers.

But, when the granddaughter mentioned the server’s indifference on an online review, why in the world did the manager not go the extra mile to find out who lost their grandmother that day. In a small town, the local paper would likely publish the obituaries.

Why give a canned reply when a minute’s research would provide a wealth of contact information that would give the restaurant manager all she needed to comfort the bereaved granddaughter with a response that honored her loss.

How the Shoe Outlet Should Have Responded

And the one about the receipt? What’s the worst-case scenario? You lose a few dollars’ profit by giving the gift recipient a full refund. You lose nothing by giving her a store credit.

Instead, you bowed at the altar of policy and earned a hater whose hate went way further than you could ever imagine. You see, the customer scorned happened to be quite articulate. Instead of the usual obscenity-laced screed, she penned a well-reasoned argument as to why you should have refunded her the money.

Her review went viral. The business tanked. That policy wonk the customer service agent defended? He was the first one who voted to close that store. A little empathy would have gone far to address each one of these customers’ concerns. Hugging your haters not only creates a kinder world, but it can make a huge impact on your company’s bottom line.

With Only One Exception, See Situations Through Your Customers’ Eyes

Except for trolls – those annoying online haters who aren’t looking for resolution, but rather attention – putting yourself in your unhappy customers’ shoes can help you see things from their viewpoint.

When you do show that kind of empathy, you can work together with your customer to find a solution.

But, those solutions won’t happen unless you engage every customer complaint “in every channel, every time.”

Showing customers empathy shouldn’t only happen after a transaction gone bad. Whether you’re a business-to-consumer company, a business-to-business firm, or both, it’s critical to build trust throughout your relationships with every customer.

Instead of losing their capacity for empathy, as is all too often the case today, businesses need to revamp their strategy to make empathy their number one priority.

Don’t know where to start? Please consider picking up your copy of Mean People Suck today and get the bonus visual companion guide as well. Or, check out our services to help evolve your culture. And – I would be thrilled to come present to your team on the power of empathy! Get in touch today!


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