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Got bad customer service? How to complain well on social media and get results

Posted: 6:39 AM, Jan 10, 2020
Updated: 2020-01-10 15:48:30-05

Sick of getting the runaround when you have a billing or product problem? Here's how to get your issues solved quickly.

When to Tweet, Post, or Chat

When a company lets us down, most consumers—particularly those 35 and older—turn to the phone, according to an annual survey by the information technology firm Dimension Data . In an informal poll conducted by CR on Facebook and Twitter, a large majority of respondents said they preferred to contact a company by phone when they had a complaint, while only a small fraction said social media was their first choice. “When you’re really angry, you want to talk to someone and convey your rage,” Goodman says. “On the phone, I can also tell from the agent’s voice if he’s really going to help me or not. That doesn’t come through via email or other nonverbal channels.”

Of course, calling can come with its own frustrations, including phone trees, an eternity spent on hold, and being pingponged from person to person. The Customer Rage Study found that people are referred to a different contact 75 percent of the time they reach out to a company to complain, with customer satisfaction dropping each time.

In the CR poll, an online chat was the second most popular way to reach a company, after the phone. It’s true that response times, especially for basic questions, may be much quicker using a web chat than contacting a company by phone or email, but none of the CR members or customer service experts we talked with said that chatting was any more effective.

Social media lagged far behind phone calls, email, and web chats for a vast majority of people in CR’s informal poll and the Dimension Data report. But it appears to be a powerful secret weapon when it comes to customer service, many experts and consumers say.

“Smart consumers know that if they contact a company on Twitter or Facebook, they’ll get a better response and a faster response than they will if they call customer service,” says Sunil Gupta, co-chair of the Driving Digital Strategy executive program at Harvard Business School. “No one else knows when you call a company with a problem, but on social media a lot of people see the complaint, which is exactly what companies are worried about. It certainly is a way to get a company’s attention.”

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Why Social Media Succeeds

Feedback from many CR members suggests that social media can be a highly effective way to resolve customer complaints, even when other approaches fail. When Lindsey Viscomi, a marketing executive from Vienna, Va., called JCPenney to sort out a billing problem, the company’s automated phone system told her she would be on hold for 45 minutes. She had a better idea. “I tweeted a message to JCPenney that their telephone wait time was nuts, and asked if someone could call me back,” Viscomi says. A representative quickly tweeted a reply and, after a few messages back and forth, the company credited her a refund. “I didn’t hang up the phone, because I was afraid to lose my place,” Viscomi says, “but the whole thing was resolved on Twitter in 20 minutes—before anyone ever answered my call.”

Viscomi has also used Twitter to resolve problems with companies including CVS, Delta, Lyft, and Nordstrom. Like many CR members, she notes that a key advantage of using social media is that it frees her from the frustration of navigating phone trees and being put on hold. “Social media is public, so you get a lot of eyeballs on your complaint,” she says. “I feel like it kind of lights a fire under the company to get back to you.”

Eighty-four percent of consumers who posted complaints on social media used Facebook and 26 percent used Twitter, according to the Customer Rage Study. CR members reported success with both platforms, and typically used the one where they were active.

Joey Davis, a CR member and telecommunications worker from San Diego, has used both Facebook and Twitter for customer service and finds that Facebook has several advantages. “Facebook is so effective that it’s now my go-to, even before customer service chat,” Davis says. “I get a more immediate response from companies when I post on their Facebook page than I do when I contact them on Twitter, and the Facebook posts seem to get more comments and stay visible longer than tweets. I’ve also had product questions answered by other consumers on Facebook before the company ever got back to me. There’s almost always someone in the crowd who knows the answer.”

And there’s no doubt that having a massive social media following may help you get a company’s attention, as Kim Kardashian West did last May when she tweeted a complaint about the Jack in the Box chain to her 62 million followers. (The company responded within 24 minutes.) But given that none of the many CR members who have resolved problems using social media have celebrity-level followings, being well-connected can work to your advantage but is certainly not a requirement.

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How to Get Satisfaction

Social media can be a powerful tool to resolve consumer problems, but it’s far from foolproof. Ali Cornford, an advertising executive who lives in New York City, is a frequent Twitter user who says she has had little success with customer service using that platform. “I find that companies usually reply very quickly with a generic apology and a request that you direct message them,” she says. (Direct messages on Twitter aren’t seen by anyone but the recipient.) “They want to quickly take it offline and away from public view, but then nothing happens. It leaves you with a false sense of hope.” Indeed, a growing number of companies use chatbot technology to automatically respond to messages on social media, which means that, in initial exchanges at least, you might not be communicating with a customer service representative at all.

But for some people, a response from a company through social media is good enough, even when the company isn’t able to resolve the problem. CR member Susan Kreusch turned to social media last year after her mobile phone suddenly stopped picking up a cellular signal inside her home. “I called AT&T four times over four or five days,” she says. “Each time the agent did nothing but take down my problem. That’s when I thought, ‘Forget this, I’m going on Facebook.’” Less than an hour after she sent a message, she received a reply from an AT&T customer service rep who gave Kreusch her direct number. Kreusch says it took more than a month to determine that the problem was with a transmission tower and couldn’t be remedied by the company. But she remains an AT&T customer because of the way it handled her complaint.

“After contacting the company on Facebook, I got an immediate human response,” she says. “The agent continually kept me updated and would message me when she couldn’t reach me by phone. When I called, I didn’t have to listen to 99 options on an automated phone system. It was the epitome of customer service.”

An AT&T spokesperson said that customers can get questions answered or problems resolved by phone or through social media, an online chat, or the company’s website. “It’s our goal to provide the highest-quality experience regardless of how our customers engage with us,” she said.

As Jean-Luc Bourdon, the Santa Barbara financial planner, points out, sometimes just knowing you’ve been heard is satisfaction enough. “It used to be that when a company behaved badly, you either had to move on with a bad taste in your mouth or take legal action,” he says. “But social media empowers customers to demand to be treated as they should be. I find it comforting that there isn’t a place for really outrageously bad service to hide anymore.”