THE CUSTOMER IS KIND OF ALWAYS RIGHT

Complaining on Twitter can result in good customer service—if you do it right

How important is customer service? Just ask Comcast. The cable and internet giant, which had its bid to buy Time Warner Cable rebuffed by federal regulators, recently announced that it’s hiring 5,500 customer-service representatives and tripling the number of workers who staff the company’s social-media accounts.

Comcast hasn’t said its decision to beef up service is a reaction to its setback in Washington. Still, the move shows clearly that companies understand their reputations rest increasingly on their ability to interact well with customers.

That interaction is increasingly happening through Twitter and Facebook—the new town halls, where anybody with a grievance against a company can be heard by fellow customers. In an effort to keep criticism contained, big brands are beefing up their social-response units to deal with complaints quickly.

The social-media analytics firm Simply Measured reports that “the number of top brands with dedicated customer service [Twitter] handles has increased by 19% year-over-year.”

To be sure, Twitter and other outlets give consumers leverage against companies that don’t want to become the next object of viral scorn, as Comcast was last summer when a customer’s request to cancel service turned into a “call from hell.”

Yet social media, compared to the more traditional call center, also gives companies a big advantage in how they handle complaints. These days, when a complaint comes in via Twitter or Facebook, a company can instantly research the complainer before deciding whether and how to respond.

A senior communications leader at a financial services company confirmed to me that it’s now standard practice to comb through a complainer’s public social media accounts—Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, and more—to determine whether the person has a genuine beef or is simply a habitual crank. This allows the company to better focus its resources on people whose problems can actually be resolved.

Furthermore, employees monitoring and managing social-media complaints are likely to be on the corporate communications or marketing team—professionals whose job is to do whatever it takes to maintain the company’s public image. That’s a different staffing model than the call center, where employees have a limited range of solutions available to them.

The social media monitors also have a high emotional-intelligence quotient (the famed EQ). As Oprah Winfrey put it in her daytime-TV farewell, every person wants to know, “Do you see me, do you hear me, does what I say mean anything to you?” Great customer-service people recognize this. They’re quick to express empathy—letting you know you’ve been heard—and then move to a resolution. By tweeting at a company, you get plugged into this higher level of customer response right away, rather than having to climb the ladder of call-center managers before finally finding someone who can take action.

That is, if you do it right. Given the ease of both venting and vetting on Twitter and Facebook, it’s important for consumers to approach social-media customer service the right away. Here are three tips:

  1. Complain to customer service judiciously. Just because you can lodge a complaint doesn’t mean you should. Think about car insurance: Is it worth filing a claim for $280 when your deductible is $250? What kind of reputation do you want to have with the companies you’re dealing with? Make sure your complaint clears the bar of importance.
  2. Present the company with an actual issue that can be resolved. If you’re having trouble with a product, or can’t obtain flight information, or your cable is out, state the issue clearly and give the customer-service rep a pathway to resolution. If you just want to blow off steam or pick a fight, don’t expect to get a response.
  3. Use social media to improve a relationship with a company, not end one. If you were legitimately wronged, state your problem clearly and, if help is slow to come, loop in media outlets, regulators, and anyone else who might help you grab the company’s attention. Don’t resort to snarky hashtags, or threaten to “never do business with [the company] again.” That’s a signal that you can’t be satisfied and reps can better spend their time on someone else.

Smart companies recognize that customers now have more—and more public—ways to make life difficult for them. They’re responding with a new resolve to make customer service more responsive. But if consumers want to maintain their advantage, they have to interact with companies the right way. There’s no sense greasing a wheel that won’t ever stop squeaking.

You can follow Steve on Twitter at @isg2. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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