“It’s extremely difficult to craft the right response to avoid ending up in the fray”

Let’s turn the tables and take a look at customer service from the other side. I recently received a request for help from the unlikeliest of places: the general counsel for a fast-food chain. She wanted to know how to handle the increasing number of complaints that were emerging through social media.

By way of full disclosure, the On Your Side wiki has begun posting the Twitter accounts of corporations, since it’s often a highly effective way of making first contact with a company.

I wanted to share a few excerpts from our correspondence, since I think they are instructive for those of us pondering a social-media grievance.

Exasperated general counsel: Do you have suggestions for how to handle the use of social media as the forum for complaints against a company? I am sure many companies across all industrial sectors are experiencing one or more unhappy customers telling sometimes embellished tales of woe. It’s extremely difficult to craft the right response to avoid ending up in the fray. As I am seeing more and more of these types of complaints, I am trying to gather recommendations from other companies on how they have handled social media complaint responses.

Me: What type of complaints are you dealing with?

Exasperated general counsel: Recently we had a customer angry that we had sent a trademark cease and desist to another restaurant. He launched a nasty campaign on Twitter and Facebook. I even had to have Twitter to remove an account he created using our tradename. Also, recently a person parked in a handicapped spot at one of our franchise locations had their car towed and the family has been posting their side of the story that makes the company sound pretty mean and nasty.

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As I said, the problem for me has been in crafting a response that doesn’t make it sound as though the company is “guilty” of a transgression or that the company doesn’t care. I am curious as to how other companies are handling social media broadsides. Anything I can learn from someone else helps my company.

Me: The short answer is that most of the time, companies will issue a brief reply or rebuttal, and then leave it at that. The only companies that get involved in a tit-for-tat are small businesses that just don’t know any better. Does this help at all?

Exasperated general counsel: Absolutely. In fact, I follow the same approach and am encouraging our marketing people to do the same. I have found that most complainers either get tired or find someone new to beat up on. However, I do find that our marketing company is more inclined to get involved in the harangue and try to “fix” things. Thanks for the dialogue. I appreciate knowing that what I have done so far is working for others.

Alright, so what does this mean to the average consumer. Here are a few thoughts:

1. Social media matters. Despite their often dismissive attitude toward social media, what you say on Facebook, Twitter and various other forms of social media is important to companies.

2. Companies pay close attention to social media campaigns. Of course no one likes to be badmouthed online. But when you have a potential audience of thousands — even hundreds of thousands — corporations are anything but dismissive.

3. There’s an internal conflict from which you can benefit. Some company executives will want to play it cool. Others will want to go on the defensive. A smart customer will be aware of that internal discussion and craft any social media campaigns with that in mind.

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I want to distinguish between customers with a legitimate gripe and online terrorists, who are threatening to “take down” a company if they don’t get what they want. The extortionists should be ashamed of themselves — as ashamed of themselves as companies who don’t offer their customers the service they deserve.

(Photo: p shab/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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