Haters on Social Media? Give Them a Hug.

A Q&A with Jay Baer

May 26, 2016

“F**k this university. I am so sick of their b******t.”

Three years ago, I woke up at 6:30 a.m., rolled over and opened Twitter to see that message from a George Washington University student. By 6:55 a.m., he apologized and became a fan of our social media.

How? In this instance, I tweeted back: “What is the problem? Is there anything I might be able to do to help?”

Within 15 minutes, he responded, “I apologize for my vitriolic tweet. I have deleted it. I appreciate your offer to help.”

Taking the conversation to direct message, I discovered that there was an issue with his paperwork. I connected him with the right person and we resolved it. So in about 25 minutes I turned this angry student into a fan.

In my role at GW, I oversee social media strategy and the main university accounts. After seven years of experience at two universities, I have seen hundreds of messages like this. They no longer make me cringe. OK, maybe they do … but I also see each of them as an opportunity.

Transforming Critics

Turning an online (or offline) critic into a fan or even an advocate, is at the core of Jay Baer’s new book, “Hug Your Haters.”

Since joining Twitter in 2008, I have hugged my haters — reading complaints, reaching out with a genuine and personal message, and trying to resolve issues.

Reading Baer’s book opened my eyes to just how powerful this customer service work can be. His data, collected with Edison Research, demonstrates the alarming negative results when you ignore haters and the incredible brand boost you get when you are good at responding.

So, I reached out to Jay on Twitter to find out how his “Hug Your Haters” framework can work in higher education. After all, while most companies sell a single product, in higher education we run small cities — with complex services like housing, food, health, public safety, and transportation.

Q: In the last 10 years, branding and reputation management have become a major priority in higher ed. How can hugging your haters fit into a broader branding strategy?

Jay: Universities, like all organizations, have manifestly increased attention paid to marketing because competition for attention has disrupted traditional marketing playbooks and made success more elusive. However, universities largely have not correspondingly increased attention paid to customer service and retention. This is misguided, as customer service is being disrupted in the same ways that marketing has been disrupted. Providing demonstrably better and more responsive service, especially online, now gives the few universities that “get it” a clear branding advantage.

Q: A company like KLM, which you mention in the book, has 150 employees dedicated to hugging their haters. How can a higher education team with one person managing social media handle customer service in a similar way?

Jay: The consultants in my company and myself work with many universities on this precise issue. One of the keys is answering as many questions/complaints as possible with content. A great many questions and issues posed in a university setting are repeated endlessly. Create content that allows students, staff, stakeholders to solve their question/problem themselves. That takes some of the volume away from the one-person customer service department trying to spin the plates of online complaints and comments.

Q: With so many services provided by a university, it may be easy to respond to haters, but how do you systematize the services provided so that you’re not just offering empty promises?

Jay: It requires system-wide inventory and analysis of what’s being said, to whom, and in what channels. We often conduct “Honesty Audits” that look at how a university is handling feedback, praise, and complaints across all contact mechanisms, and then map best practices accordingly.

Q: Often “the administration” at a university is seen as a blob and not a group of individuals working to make the students’ experience great. How can a customer service strategy humanize these individuals?

Jay: Wherever possible, use real names to humanize responses. And don’t overlook the power of video. Answering questions and complaints with video (even live video) is an outstanding way to change the emotional balance of the interaction.

Jay Baer is President of Convince & Convert, a keynote speaker, a podcaster, and the author of five books including Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers.

Jon Hussey is the Managing Director of Digital Marketing Strategy at the George Washington University where he provides strategy for web, social media, photo, video, and digital marketing.


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