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How should companies handle complaints via social media?


By The Drum Team, Editorial

October 24, 2011 | 5 min read

Simon Collister, consultancy director for We Are Social, comments on the latest surveys showing that customer complaints are not well handled through social media.

Simon Collister, We Are Social

The recent surveys revealing that companies generally fail to respond to customer complaints in social media (see 'related links' ) are interesting, but hardly surprising. Companies can be big, slow-moving organisations with unwieldy structures and stretched resources. Sometimes, even a complaint made through the regular channels can take ages to resolve. It’s no great shock that complaints in social media should be the same (that’s no justification for such poor service – just an unfortunate fact).

But somehow, it’s become expected that if you complain about a brand through social media, that` brand will have the capacity and resource to leap on it immediately, fix it, and offer you bounteous recompense.

Of course that’s not the case, and it perhaps, controversially, shouldn’t be until everyone can get that level of service. That’s not to say any brand should be ignoring customers – of course not.

Users of Twitter and Facebook might want or expect a fantastic, flawless and immediate response, but from a business point of view, the worst outcome is ending up with a two-tier system. A system where phone complaints and letters are dealt with slowly and badly, while those on Twitter get love, apologies and freebies. It’s unfair, and bad business practice to do this just because social channels are more public and complaints are embarrassing. Everyone should get great service – and social media needs to be aligned with existing customer service processes (and even – shock horror – be used to improve them).

Of course companies need to be thinking about this issue. Online reputation management is one of the most pressing business issues facing companies today. The potential for reputation damage is huge. But then, there can hardly be a company that doesn’t know this – and isn’t equally aware of the perils of getting it wrong and making the problem worse.

So what should processes should companies put in place to deal with complaints in social spaces? And more importantly, what should they do in the meantime to appease their annoyed, tweeting customers while they put such a system in place?

The major issue here is consistency. Companies need to respond in a managed way that aligns with existing customer service protocols and processes at any stage. Ideally, they would use social channels to improve customer service across the business – as a spur to make things better for everyone. A brand will also need to ensure there are no mixed messages between the social media team and the customer service team.

Setting up social customer service is something that requires internal organisation. For example, the people that manage the Facebook page and Twitter accounts might not be the people who are used to or skilled in dealing with customer complaints. How do you resolve this?

There needs to be a workflow that embeds complaints made via social media into the customer service system. This process will lay out roles and responsibilities – so even if the social media manager doesn’t deal with complaints directly, then they can flag it up within the system.

It’s also hugely important to quantify the types of complaints and conversations around your brand – that way you can not only anticipate need, but set response procedures up correctly. This sort of analysis also provides insight that can feed back to company management, who can invest more in these problem areas.

But these processes – classifying complaints, creating workflows and responsibilities – of course take time. In the meantime, companies need to set up an interim system which allows for acknowledgment of complaints – even if that response is ‘we’re looking into it’, or a request for the complainant to lodge a complaint through existing channels. Ignoring people is the worst of all possible outcomes.

And of course one of the main benefits of doing customer service through social media is that you can be a lot more social (well, duh). From the get go, you can have open conversations with people that may resolve issues and prevent complaints occurring or escalating. If you start to work in this way, the community may even begin to resolve problems within themselves. This sort of community management can provide an solution while you equip yourselves properly to deal with complaints made in these channels. Even attempting to resolve something can turn a bad experience into a good one because customers understand that you’re trying.

So: not an easy answer. But if you would like to complain about it on Twitter, then I’m @simoncollister. I promise I won’t ignore you, at the very least.


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