Customer Complaints and Increasing Business: How Disney World Hugged This Hater

Hugging your haters isn’t just a nice-to-have aspect of the modern brand. Hugging your haters is what you should be doing if you want your business to succeed.

Four Reasons to Hug Your Haters

I recently saw Jay Baer present live at Advocamp where he conducted a keynote around how to Hug Your Haters – which also happens to be the contents of his latest book. The premise of this book is that people who privately or publicly complain about (or hate on) your brand are not your biggest problem or even your biggest haters. It’s those who don’t like, dislike or simply care enough about your brand to even bother speaking out that are your biggest problem. Vocal complainers are an amazing opportunity to hug your customers - even the ones who aren’t that happy with you – and turn their perception around.

In Chapter One of Hug Your Haters, Mr. Baer outlines four reasons why taking the time and resources to hug your haters isn’t just the loving thing to do. It’s good business with ample return for your organization. Here is my summary of his points.

  1. You Turn Bad News Good – If your customer has had a negative experience with your brand, taking the time to address their concerns, perhaps make compensation and express empathy for their position can turn a bad situation into something quite the opposite. A great response to an unhappy customer can take bad news and make it into something good.
  2. You Create Customer Advocacy – A client who has had their complaints acknowledged and resolved can actually become a stronger customer advocate for you than a client who has not experienced a similar resolution to conflict. Just as in personal relationships, conflict and resolution can lead to a stronger and more solid customer relationship and your response to their complaint can in and of itself become a powerful testimonial.
  3. You Gather Insights and Intelligence – Talking to a less than satisfied customer gives you the chance to learn about your products and your customer’s experience first hand and free of charge. When you identify customers who are willing to talk to you about their bad experiences, you have the opportunity to also learn about other facets of their experience with your brand.
  4. You Differentiate from Your Competitors – It’s a buyers market. Your customers have multiple brands to choose from, many of which will offer similar products and solutions as you. In a world where many public and private customer reviews are simply ignored, taking the time to respond, remedy and build relationship can be the biggest differentiator between you and your competitors.

How Disney Gave Me an Amazing Hug

I recently had an experience with Disney World that matches up with the Mr. Baer’s reasons for hugging haters perfectly.

Since our first family trip to Walt Disney World (WDW), we’ve become ardent Disney World fans. Disney is in the business of selling magical experiences, and our first trip was just that. We decided to make this a yearly tradition. However, while our park experience was still excellent, our resort interactions on our trip late last year were definitely sub-par. We had multiple interactions with different resorts that all were greatly below the touted Disney standards and caused multiple inconveniences for our family. It was a big disappointment. (Traveling with a 5-year-old, 3-year-old and 9-month-old is already difficult enough without lost luggage, missing beds and unhelpful customer services agents. Just trust me on this one.)

Resisting the urge to tweet snarky comments about diminishing Disney quality (I am a Disney fan, after all), I sent a thoughtful email a few days after my trip to express my deep concern over my latest WDW experience. I sent this letter to the designated email address for customer feedback, but being a skeptic, like many of you are, of the black hole of customer service, I scoured the internet for an appropriate person to actually forward my feedback to. The only relevant contact I could find was none other than the president of Walt Disney World, George Kalogridis. With no other good alternatives, I thought, “What the hell” and sent it.

To my surprise, within an hour I received a call from Mahmud Dhanani, VP of Walt Disney World, telling me he had just received my email from “George” and apologizing profusely for my experience. He subsequently contacted everyone involved over the weekend, assured me that there would be additional employee training as a result of my experience and then gifted me a four night stay for up to six people, including park tickets and free dining, at The Grand Floridian, one of Disney World’s top resort.

Effectively Responding to your Customer Critics and Critiques

This is a great ending to a story that perfectly demonstrates how to turn a bad situation around and change perception while doing it.

But why was WDW’s response so “great”? Why was it effective? Because I got free stuff? Not really. In fact, I’m traveling to Disney World again next month and opted to not use my free trip at this time. So why was this response so powerful?

  • Timing – I didn’t expect a response from the President of Walt Disney World in the slightest. Nor did I even believe he would read my email. But after slow response times during our visit, having the VP of WDW Resorts pick up the phone and call me within an hour of my communication blew my expectations out of the water.
  • Ownership and Action – During our stay at WDW, I had a hard time finding someone to take ownership for our situation. Rather than rectifying with whatever means possible, lack of ownership allowed our situation to cascade into multiple issues. When Mr. Dhanani called me, he took ownership of the situation and took the steps necessary to rectify it.  It's important that client facing personnel have the power to take action, or if they do not, that they quickly elevate the situation to  someone who does.  
  • Empathy - I cannot overemphasize the power of a little empathy.  There is nothing more frustrating than dealing with a representative who does not seem to understand or care about your situation.  This was my biggest complaint during my visit.  Mr. Dhanani empathized with my frustrations and the situations in which I found myself. Sometimes, that's all you need to hear.  
  • Listening and Learning – I wrote a pretty detailed email, but when I was contacted, I was asked for any more feedback on my experience that has not met my expectations.

The Business Sense of Being Radical When It Comes to Customer Complaints

You might be thinking, “This is a great story. Kind of like a customer experience fairy tale in fact (how apt). But my company can’t afford to respond to unhappy customers with multiple executive phone calls and free product.”

But I want you to ask yourself, “Can you afford not to respond to unhappy customers in a way that goes above and beyond expectations?”

Let’s go back to Mr. Baer’s four business savvy reasons to “Hug Your Haters” and see how Disney’s response made great business sense.

  1. They Turned Bad News Good – At the time I wrote my email to Disney, I was seriously debating whether we would return the following year. My fear was that Disney was losing that “something” that made it so special. But they turned my bad experience into something good and turned my perception around the quality of customer service at Disney World around. This reinstated my intentions to return to WDW for family vacations. That’s about three to four thousand dollars a year for the next 13-15 years if we continue our yearly trip. And what about when my kids start taking their own kids because they have happy memories of family vacations?
  2. They Created Customer Advocacy – I was already a Disney advocate, offering to help people plan their trips and convincing others that the steep price tag was worth it. However, over the last few months since this incident, I’ve shared my story many times on how generously Disney addressed my poor experience. I feel more connected to Disney World after my personal interactions with Mr. Dhanani and his staff. This makes me a stronger and more authentic advocate than before. Just look. I’m writing a blog post about them for free.
  3. They Gathered Insights and Intelligence – We had some extremely disappointing interactions while at WDW. These were issues that definitely needed addressed. When the President of WDW and VP of WDW Resorts took the time to read my extremely long email rather than ignoring it, they gathered important insights to enhance their business and perhaps prevented other negative customer experiences from happening.
  4. They Differentiated from Their Competitors – Why are people willing to spend thousands of dollars to stand in the hot sun, wrestle sugar-high, exhausted children and hear “It’s a Small World” playing in their head over and over? For the Disney Experience, of course. And part of the Disney magic has always been amazing customer experience that you don’t often find elsewhere. While I was disappointed in my interactions with cast members last visit, I was extremely impressed – even overwhelmed – by the over-and-above response from the executive level afterward to remedy that experience. The only way I would have been more surprised is if Mickey Mouse himself had called me! (That would have been completely awesome, by the way.)
A timely, empathetic and proactive response can turn a bad experience into a profitable opportunity to solidify trust, increase advocacy and even increase customer lifetime value.  

Are You Hugging Your Haters?

If you’re not, it’s time. You don’t have to give away free Disney World trips to surprise and delight your haters. But you do need to respond to them in a timely manner, take ownership of the situation, rectify the situation when possible and listen and learn. Does that take effort and resources?  You betcha.

But the question is not if you can afford to embrace, delight and change the perception of your critics. The question is, can you afford not to?

March 22, 2016
Liz Richarson