Picture this scenario:
You’re standing in a line, a long line, maybe during the morning rush at a coffee shop. The line advances at a mind-numbing pace, and the people on the other side of the counter who could help it move along faster don’t seem exceptionally concerned with doing so—because really, they get paid either way.
At long last, you make it to the front of the line, order your latte, move over and wait in a new spot, finally get your drink, and leave still mentally stewing over your experience. Two blocks down the street, you realize your hard-earned, extra-caffeinated, $5 kick-in-the-pants is barely lukewarm. You take out your phone. You tweet the scathing specifics of your present customer service annoyance, brand name included.
Seems harmless enough, doesn’t it? At best, it might get a brand’s attention and elicit a response, and if nothing else, it serves as momentary retribution for wasting your time, money, etc.
Of course, this kind of irritating customer service experience isn’t going to knock the earth off of its orbit—but I like it as an example because it’s tangible and pervasive. Dissatisfied with the quality of service at a restaurant? Tweet about. Airline sent your baggage to a different city? Post something on their Facebook wall. Indeed, some variation of this scenario plays out all day, everyday, everywhere.
But what are the personal and collective impacts of these social media-enabled customer service rants?
Getting personal (the micro impacts)
Most of the individuals I have connected with via social media have at least some professional motivation for using a platform (as do I). The “social media as a cocktail party” metaphor helps illustrate the following point. If I stand up on a chair at a cocktail party, and loudly recount the details of a negative customer service experience with a brand, I’m likely not going to win many friends or influence people at said event. But if someone employed by the offending brand happens to be at the party and overhears, they may try to convince me to come down off the chair by promising to do whatever they can to resolve the issue.
Ultimately, if we leverage our social networks to publicly call-out a brand like this, then we are leveraging our social networks for personal gain. Like it or not, these actions will have an impact on other people’s perceptions of our own brands.
Reshaping the customer-brand dynamic (the macro impacts)
Cumulatively, millions of public voices putting brands on the spot to address customer service issues exacerbates a paradox that existed long before the advent of social media. Mitch Joel sums it up nicely:
By working the traditional channels and trying to keep things private, nothing happens. Nothing gets resolved and the brands don’t even realize/know these issues are taking place. If I tweet about it (which I don’t want to do), there is a strong possibility I would get next-to-perfect resolution and the brand would then be able to iterate and evolve based on the incident.
Losing one unhappy customer may not a big deal. Losing thousands probably is. That’s why social media works so well in these instances. Good or bad, customers are now empowered as they never have been before to get a brand’s attention in the public sphere. But unfortunately, that empowerment may further dilute the ability of customers to obtain resolutions through private channels.
I have experienced this first-hand. I recently attempted to rectify a significant travel-related customer service issue by privately working with both the travel agency and the resort to reach a resolution. After eight weeks of being given the run-around, I was told point blank by the owner of the travel agency that they had “looked into me” and because I hadn’t posted anything about my grievance on my personal blog or social media profiles, they just didn’t believe that the problem was as terrible as I made it out to be.
Needless to say, I almost fell off my seat when I heard that. I thought they would appreciate my taking a tactful approach, and yet this business was practically asking me to publicly shame them to prove that I felt they had wronged me. This is absolute lunacy, but perhaps we, as hyper-connected consumers, have largely ourselves to blame.
I’m not saying that egregious customer service issues shouldn’t ever be brought to public light via our own social networks. Some brands make horrific missteps, show little remorse for the damage they have inflicted, and need to be held accountable. However, I would suggest that we pick our public battles when seeking resolutions to customer service issues by asking if the potential short-term gain will be worth it over the long haul.
I certainly haven’t been any social media angel myself in the past—I’m sure anyone who took the time to scroll through years of my tweets, status updates, and the like would stumble on some customer service-related griping. Suffice to say that I’m going to be more cognizant of the social seeds that I am planting from here on out.
The credit roll (and suggested further reading/listening)
This post has been largely inspired by last week’s Six Pixel’s of Separation podcast on customer service and social media. I highly recommend giving it a listen. At first I was somewhat resistant to Mitch Joel’s position on the topic, but by the end he had won me over. He followed-up with a great blog post too. Also be sure to check out Joseph Jaffe’s take on the issue.