Long before Twitter, business consultants advised to embrace customer complaints. Wise people like Don Peppers and Martha Rogers saw complaints for what they were: opportunities to identify problems companies can fix, leading to happier customers, better word of mouth and more sales.
In their 1993 book, "The One-to-One Future," Peppers and Rogers write that "just by complaining, a customer is initiating a dialogue with a marketer and making himself open to one-to-one collaboration. The complaining customer is an asset-a business opportunity-for any marketer following a share-of-customer strategy."
No organization is perfect. Nor are their products or services. Once you accept that, you can see the wisdom in Peppers and Rogers' conclusion: "If you never hear a complaint, that should be a cause for concern, not self-congratulation."
The product or service in question doesn't matter. Whether it's a computer, a mobile phone, a refrigerator, a car or a high-end industrial machine, owners suffering problems that aren't resolved quickly are going to complain. And they're not going to complain to the four walls of their office or den. They're going to complain to someone with a sympathetic ear. They're going to complain to their families and friends.
Those kinds of conversations-"I can't believe the grief I'm getting from Acme trying to get them to right a wrong or fix my product"-used to take place in bars, over backyard fences, by the water cooler and in carpools. They still do. Social media has provided individuals with a new forum to vent the same frustrations, with Twitter and Facebook status updates providing greater gratification because the complaint is heard nearly (but not quite) as quickly as if you were chatting face-to-face with a group of colleagues waiting for a meeting to start.
Some people don't see it that way. Rather than view customer complaints on Twitter as an opportunity, they wonder if responding to such complaints is accelerating our the descent into a marketplace of whiners. Jimmy Warren, president of TotalCom Communications, wrote in his "Marketing Your Hospital" blog:
In the past, a customer complaint was handled usually with a phone call or maybe by email and the matter in question was handled either satisfactorily or unsatisfactorily. It was done quietly and just between the customer and the company. But now, consumers have at their disposal, social media. Now a dissatisfied customer can let the world know about his complaints. And companies now monitor those online comments and in their desire to stop the flow of bad blood and demonstrate their responsiveness will quickly satisfy an angry customer. Companies are much more likely to give a favorable response to a customer who has broadcast his complaint over the internet than one who follows the traditional lines of customer service.
Others have added that well-known online personalities are more likely to get attention than the average consumer, but I disagree. In most cases, the customer service representatives who are scouring Twitter for complaints about their companies don't know a Steve Rubel or a Chris Brogan from anybody else with a Twitter account. I've been accused of using some presumed celebrity status when I've taken to Twitter to resolve a customer service issue and, in most cases, it was clear the person reaching out to me had no idea who I was-other than a dissatisfied customers, which should be all the "celebrity" anyone needs.
As a result, Warren wonders whether companies are "training consumers to whine about them on the web...that's a dangerous precedent."
There's a profound truth at the core of Warren's argument. Something's wrong if customers can get resolution only by resorting to complaint via Twitter after failing to get anywhere with phone-based customer service. The call center should provide service so excellent that nobody ever needs to tap into a secondary channel to get results. I've argued for years that companies need to stop viewing customer support as a cost to be contained, but rather as a marketing and PR channel for bolstering the company's reputation.
The reality, however, is that customer service-notwithstanding praiseworthy exceptions like Zappos.com-frequently leave customers frustrated, their issues unresolved. And contrary to Warren's assertion that an unsatisfactory pre-social media customer service interaction stayed between the customer and the company, customers complained face-to-face to family, friends and colleagues. If the story was outrageous enough, those who heard the story passed it on to their family, friends and colleagues. The tale could spread to hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of people who would be influenced against doing business with that organization.
And the organization never knew.
Twitter is not the source of a new behavior. It's merely a new channel for an old behavior. The big difference is that companies are now able to hear the complaints and act on them. Further, the customer is not the only person who sees the company helping the customer. That complaint ultimately can influence scores of people to want to do business with the company.
I remember hearing C.C. Chapman praise Comcast to the high heavens for responding to his tweet complaining about reception on his new flat-panel TV. His praise was delivered over one of his popular podcasts. Every listener heard C.C. talk about how awesome Comcast was, all because he was able to complain in front of, instead of behind, the company's back.
But there is more to the phenomenon of complaint-driven customer-company engagement on Twitter. Consider the days before the telephone. I imagine some business managers, upon having their telephones installed, getting their first phoned-in complaints and fuming, "Have these people no sense of propriety? How dare they use the telephone to complain! They should use the appropriate channels and write a letter."
Like it or not, Twitter simply represents yet another channel customers can use to reach out to companies. Many complaints posted to Twitter are not second-tier efforts after a call to customer service failed to produce results. Some customers use Twitter first. It's easier. There are no long hold times while listening to elevator music or, worse, company advertising.
Recognizing this, some call center software now allows customer service representatives to respond to a customer inquiry from an source, not just the phone. A queue of questions and complaints to be resolved can include people waiting on the phone, tweets, Facebook-initiated queries, blog posts, you name it. Ultimately, what difference does the channel make? A complaint is a complaint.
Except the channel does make a difference, since the phone call is, indeed, private and the social media-initiated complaints are public-as is the company's response. In 1993, Don Peppers and Martha Rogers had no idea how valuable complaints would be 17 years in the future. A complaint resolved online and in public is an invaluable view of the esteem in which the company holds the customer.
Warren's post concludes:
It's much better to address and resolve consumer (and patient!) issues in private through traditional customer service channels than to be unresponsive and read about it, on the internet. Along with the rest of the world.
In fact, the challenge for companies is to resolve a customer complaint the first time, regardless of where it originated. If it takes two tries-a customer resorting to Twitter when a phone call fails-it's still incumbent upon the organization to listen, respond and rectify. If it's in public, it's an opportunity to showcase the company at its best, not a cringeworthy scenario to be avoided at all costs.
But viewing those who use the channels available to them as whiners? That instills an attitude that can only taint the organization's attitudes toward customer service.