Complaints – Useful but Dangerous

I love complaints.  Really, I love complaints -  from viewers, listeners, and my staff.

This summer I’ve been called a “right wing activist,” and accused of “being in the (Columbus) mayor’s back pocket.”  For a journalist, the combination amounts to Mission Accomplished.

In business school, my HR professor, Jeffrey Ford and my customer service professor, Neeli Bendapudi taught me  complaints are vital.  Your co-workers’ complaints indicate they care about the organization and want to improve it.  Your customer complaints can be the early warning that something with your organization wrong.

I’d rather hear from a viewer who dislikes a program than just have the viewer turn us off and not return.

But prematurely over-reacting to complaints is dangerous.  Just ask the superintendents of Hilliard and Dublin City Schools.  They were barraged with complaints from a vocal group opposed to President Barack Obama’s education speech to students.  The school leaders quickly decided not to show the address.   But complaints from other parents, those who wanted their kids to see the speech,  prompted some very quick backpedaling.  Hilliard decided to show the President’s speech while Dublin first allowed individual teachers to make the call and then backpedaled even further and opted to show the speech to students whose parents wrote a note.

The problem with relying only on complaints to make a decision is sometimes it prompts bad decisions.

Face it,  complainers don’t like what you are doing.  That’s good to know, but you generally don’t hear from the people who support your work.  Take the restaurant diner who gets great service.  She might leave a nice tip, but she usually doesn’t seek out the manager to say, “We had a great waiter!”  But if the $40 steak is overcooked and cold, look out.

Case in point.  In 1988, I was working at WTAG-AM in Worcester, Massachuetts when the radio station decided to air The Rush Limbaugh Show. The calls flooded in. “Why is this idiot on the air?”  ”Get that fascist off the radio.”  Our program director received hundreds of calls those first weeks but stuck with the show.  A few months later the ratings emerged.  Rush Limbaugh doubled WTAG’s mid-day audience and went on to save AM radio.

But what about the complaints?   They only told a portion of the story.  The people who liked Rush did not call to thank the station, they just listened.

At WOSU we listen to every complaint.  They are forwarded to managers.  I respond to every reasonable piece of feedback. (Inside tip:  Dropping the “F-Bomb” will land your e-mail in my recycle bin.)  Sometimes the complaint will prompt a change.  Other times it won’t.

You can’t please everyone.  If you try, you won’t please anyone.

Just ask school leaders in Hilliard and Dublin.

- Mike Thompson

Join The Conversation