Harvard Business Review

A Better Way to Handle Publicly Tweeted Complaints


Posted on Harvard Business Review: November 21, 2011 12:22 PM

Yes, listening to customers is great. Social media sites are fabulous for facilitating customer dialogue. I even believe that complaints are a gift. But I also know perverse incentives and unintended consequences when I see them. I see them oozing into and out of the emergent—and increasingly co-dependent—customer service eco-systems of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Yelp and corporate contact centers.

In theory and practice, having your airline or local store quickly acknowledge and respond to constructive complaints can be wonderful. Everyone looks good. Information asymmetries baked into social media platforms and customer care protocols, however, encourage counterproductive behaviors. Brand managers and customer care leaders beware. Complaining about complaining has become “the new abnormal.”

Consider the most obvious, and pernicious, perverse incentive: publicly tweeted complaints get faster/better reaction than calls or emails to the corporate customer contact centers. Social media circumstances invite organizations to prioritize indiscreet tweets over less transparent call center interactions. The squeaky tweeter gets the grace. Customers aren’t stupid. Why plow through irritating IVR menus on your mobile, hold for seven minutes, have a frustrating conversation with a representative not empowered to resolve your issue, hold another four minutes for a supervisor and then vent all over again? If a well-chosen 140 characters provoke comparable results—and the personal satisfaction of public shaming—then that’s what will increasingly occur. How smart are customer-centric firms that effectively train complainers to disregard or disintermediate their contact centers?

Twitter as contact center gateway, rather than solution space, may seem tactically unresponsive. But for firms strategically managing customer service ecosystem expectations, however, that choice might reinforce rather than undermine a branded “user experience” of discreet complaint resolution. To make a rude but relevant analogy, restaurants resolving complaints about food or service by giving the most generous treatment to diners who make the loudest scenes—instead of rewarding those customers whose complaints are more quiet and polite—are publicly subsidizing bad behavior.

Dealing well with inquiries and complaints is, of course, an essential customer engagement core competence. What’s radically different from even five years ago is that, for any serious customer-centric organization, transparency around customer care is as important as the interactions themselves. Too many organizations don’t yet recognize that how they are seen to handle and process complaints matters as much as how successfully the complaints are resolved. That’s why a poorly-handled call center conversation or chat exchange can spiral viral. The way a customer complains about the way a complaint was (mis)handled can prove more dominant and damning than the original issue prompting the complaint. This pathology recalls the famous Washington/Watergate political truism that, “The cover-up is worse than the crime.” Credible and widely-communicated “complaints about complaints” is a sure key performance indicator that a customer care process has underperformed.

But I’m surprised that more firms aren’t more proactive about being more transparent about how they handle customer complaints—instead of making it a little too easy for “power complainers” to disproportionately shape the public complaint conversation. Why would it be a bad thing for an American Express, Bank of America, Toyota, Home Depot or Tesco to aggregate the contact center, Twitter and Facebook complaints communications and make them available in some meaningful form online? Certainly, Toyota was driven to do so during its recall crisis—and its increased transparency had a positive impact on its public perception.

Harsh individual anecdotes might lose some of their edge and viral potential when placed in the quantitative and qualitative context of complaints—and kudos—in the aggregate. Making, say, the top 100 call/chat center transcripts and interactions might be intriguing for the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people wondering why someone is so vociferously complaining virtually about how they’ve been maltreated.

More importantly, I’d bet that—if customer response leaders and contact center innovators took transparency more seriously—they’d post data in a way that would encourage constructive engagement and suggestion for performance improvement. While “complaintsourcing” appears unlikely to enjoy the same kind of interaction as, say, various customer support forums, making it easier for customers to better see how the enterprise handles trouble and troublemakers alike is likelier to build confidence and trust than hurt it.

Of course your organization should strive to handle complaints with efficacy and grace. But you should be more innovative in making how you handle complaints with efficacy and grace, as well. Not to do so is perverse.

Related Harvard Business Review Links:
Visit HBR.org
Subscribe to Harvard Business Review
Sign up for Management Tip of the Day free email newsletter

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Michael Schrage is a researcher at MIT Sloan School's Center for Digital Business and a visiting fellow at the Imperial College Business School

We Almost Lost the Nasdaq
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW

(enter your email)
(enter up to 5 email addresses, separated by commas)

Max 250 characters

 
blog comments powered by Disqus