Remember the good ol' days when the only option unhappy customers had was to 1) file a complaint with the customer service department or 2) write a letter to the editor of the local paper?
The first option was an easy fix for companies. If they so chose, they could conveniently lose the customer complaint in their rows and rows of filing cabinets in their basement. If they were feeling altruistic, they could actually address the complaint, write the customer a letter, etc.
With the second option, companies needed only to hunker down until everyone-everyone who actually made it to page C7 of the paper, that is-forgot about the letter and moved on with their lives.
Needless to say, those days are gone, and Twitter and other social networks have changed how customers complain and how companies respond to those complaints. Also needless to say, companies can no longer cling to their customer-ignoring ways of the past. Customers expect real attention from their companies and they expect it now. If a company screws up in this environment, the whole world is watching and everyone is ready to join the dog pile.
Think Starbucks' red holiday cups.
Think about the time sweet appliance company Kitchenaid insulted President Obama's dead grandmother.
Yes, the pressure is on for companies to master the still-new realm of Twitter and satisfy customers and observers who are more demanding than ever. And although social media, including Twitter, is a constantly evolving thing, there are nine solid principles companies can follow on Twitter to respond to customer complaints like a champ... without sticking their foot in their mouth in the process:
While most companies large and small have gotten into the act of promoting themselves on Twitter, most of them haven't warmed up to actually addressing the customer complaints that are posted there.
Just how bad is this situation? According to a recent study by Maritz Research, 70% of companies ignore customer complaints on Twitter.
Maybe old habits die hard. Maybe these companies don't understand the impact this can have on the public perception of their brand. Maybe they honestly don't care. But for sure, ignoring customer complaints has consequences.
"People just complain to the wind, and they are met with silence," laments marketing author and consultant Jay Baer. "And unfortunately, a lack of response is a response-and it says, 'I don't care about you very much.'"
The silver lining here is that to stand out on Twitter and to win customers from other companies, you need only place yourself in that 30% of companies that do respond to customer complaints on Twitter. When customers deliver a complaint in their latest tweet, reach out and say something, and you will instantly place yourself above more than two-thirds of the other companies out there.
It's not enough to simply respond. As great as that is, you need to respond in a timely manner, if only because that's what customers on Twitter expect. And just how fast exactly is "timely"?
"We've found that 40% of social media complainers who expect a response expect that response within one hour," says Baer. "Yet, the average social media response from business, if they respond at all, comes in five hours. That is a fundamental problem."
Today's customer seem to view Twitter the way they would've viewed a customer service hotline back in the 1990s. Waiting more than an hour to respond to a customer complaint is the 2010s equivalent of keeping someone on hold for an hour back in the 1990s.
When you're a company on social media, it's easy to slip into defensive mode. Either you're being ignored amidst the constant stream of tweets, RTs, and mentions or you're under a sustained barrage of angry, cynical, or trollish comments. In either situation, once a customer complaint arrives, it's easy to slip into watchdog mode.
If you can step back and understand who the person on the other end is, however, it gets easier to stop being defensive and to see the situation for what it is: an opportunity to recruit.
As hard to believe as it might be, the complaining customer is not your enemy. In fact, they might turn out to be your future best friend.
Baer explains, "The haters who are taking their time to tell you what's wrong are really the unelected representatives of a larger, more dangerous group of customers, the 'meh' in the middle, the people who are unhappy but never tell you about it. And you can take these haters and turn them into a volunteer marketing and customer experience army."
If you are willing to see these complaining customers as the earnest advocates and influencers they are, you just might find yourself calmly listening to their concerns, bending over backwards to resolve their concerns, and, just maybe, winning them to your cause.
One thing you need to know is, complaining customers want to be involved in making things better. They want to tell people about products and services that serve them well. They want to tell companies how they can improve. These are people who like to be on the inside track.
If you're from a traditional company, however, you're probably more apt to tell these customers to mind their own business. If you share this view, you probably share only superficial news and canned taglines on social media.
Case studies have found, however, that not keeping customers at arm's length, but bringing them into the fold or the inner circle of your company, can be a powerful way to turn them from a complainer to an advocate.
One French restaurant chain ingeniously invited their harshest critics to dine at their establishments once a month, free of charge, and then give them feedback on what they could do better. Think of them as super-powered mystery shoppers. As a result of being invited into the company's inner workings, specifically their efforts to improve the company, these critics became enthusiastic defenders of the brand.
"Many people follow brands because their customers of the brand or because they want to be 'in the know' about the company," said Zach Bulygo, blogger at KISSmetrics. "Exclusivity is a powerful thing."
Customer complainers don't expect to have their complaints met with canned responses. They want real conversation. Fortunately, Twitter is geared perfectly for this challenge.
In her recent Harvard Business Review article, "50 Companies That Get Twitter," CEO Belinda Parmar said:
"[Twitter] has the benefit of being the most transparent big social network today. It also encourages back-and-forth conversation, unlike Facebook which tends to be a broadcasting medium."
So rather than relying on robotic scripts to respond to customer complaints on Twitter, let yourself be human. Answer questions genuinely. Ask questions to clarify the customer's concern. Express empathy and a desire to make things right.
In short, let it be a real, back-and-forth, human conversation.
Empathy, it turns out, is very important on social media. Research has found, in fact, that those companies that excel at showing empathy on Twitter and other social media platforms also get more bang for their buck on social media. Their customers end up promoting them more on social media. Their customers are more likely to purchase from them and do it more often. But this empathy isn't about just saying, "I understand that you're upset."
"Empathy goes beyond simply solving a problem," Parmar says. "It involves making a customer feel valued."
With all this talk of loving your customers more-yes, even the complainers-some might think a few trite expressions of thanks and appreciation for customers will do it. But this would severely underestimate customers' ability to see through corporate bullcrap.
Customer complainers don't want you to tell them how much you appreciate them, how hard you're going to try to get their problem fixed. No, they want to see you do it. To these marketing-wary customers, anything else is just a line to get them off your back.
Fortunately, Twitter makes the perfect stage for you to work through a problem with a customer in real time, while the rest of the world watches. Forward-thinking companies like JetBlue have already embraced this opportunity.
"JetBlue responds quickly to customer service questions on Twitter," Bulygo says. "They don't take any days off (just like their airlines) and are there to help at any time...They are going where their customers are and being there to help them, not to help themselves by constantly pushing press releases."
Remember, what I said earlier about making sure that your conversations with complaining customers are human. This point can't be overstated. When a customer has a problem with your company, the last thing they want to see is a logo or, even worse, a stock photo of a smiley Ken doll with a headset. This almost always turns out bad, as seen in this clip from the movie Elysium:
Don't put your customers through this. Customer complainers on Twitter respond much better when they encounter a human face who responds to their needs in a genuinely empathetic way.
"[Companies that are great on Twitter] aren't anonymous," agrees Parmar, citing her research on the topic. "Empathic companies named the tweeters working on their behalf and allowed them to show their individual personality and humor. Unempathic companies, on the other hand, often used anonymous tweeters, who often repeating press release headlines or corporate talking points."
If you represent a smaller company-not a JetBlue or a Starbucks-without the budget to hire a whole squad of social media managers, everything I've just shared with you can feel a bit overwhelming. After all, studies have found that the top 100 brands on earth put out an average of 12 tweets a day; small companies put out only three tweets per day, on average.
This might have you doubting. How can a one- or two-person social media team possibly hope to respond to all customer complaints in an hour or less? Or compete and be heard through all the tweets generated by larger competitors?
This is a thorny issue, of course. But let's recenter by going back to two key ideas.
First, remember the stakes involved. Twitter is no longer just an object of amusement. Companies' fortunes and reputations are made and unmade on Twitter every day. It has become the premiere destination for companies looking to make their presence known and customers hoping to find the companies they should follow next. Yes, the stakes are high, and your company's social budget should reflect that, as much as possible.
Lastly, being great at responding to customers is less a matter of size and more a matter of focus. Maybe you don't have the budget to hold a contest or RT every tweet from every follower, and that's fine. Responding swiftly to customer complaints is your goal, so put all your chips there. If you have only two social media team members, make their first priority responding to complaints. If they have downtime between complaints, then let them RT and mention away.
Speed. Empathy. Human connection. These all matter when it comes to responding to customer complaints on Twitter. When done well, however, this response becomes not just about sweeping away the bad news on your Twitter account. It becomes about strengthening relationships with customers and forging partnerships with them that most companies will miss out on.