Frustrated by a petty gate agent? Mad because your cable company is giving you bad telephone support? You know what to do: Take your complaint to Twitter. Tweet the world!
But what happens next?
That depends on how you tweet.
Complaining about customer service on Twitter or other social channels is a long-standing tradition. But recently, two big customer service tweets broke out that really illustrate the power of Twitter to effect change — and how that power can backfire. First, Ryan Block wondered on Twitter if he should post a bad customer service call he had with Comcast. Ultimately he did, and it started a firestorm that ended with a very public apology by Comcast and the possibility that the company might make fundamental changes in how it trains its staff.
That’s a good outcome.
The tweet that started it all.
And then, on July 23, Duff Watson tweeted a complaint about a Southwest Airlines experience at an airport and was booted off the plane for his troubles.
That’s not, generally, what a harried parent wants when he’s traveling with kids in tow.
Watson deleted his original tweet, which called out the gate agent by name.
So how do you complain effectively on Twitter?
I asked the king of customer service complaints, Frank Eliason, for advice. Frank was the guy behind the Twitter account @comcastcares from 2008 to 2010. He was a fixer. If Comcast wasn’t working right for you, a tweet to @comcastcares would generally elicit a pleasant response from Frank, followed by his earnest attempts to work the Comcast system for you. I resorted to tweeting to this account once and was amazed by Frank’s careful handling of my issue. It turned around my opinion about Comcast overnight.
Read More: The Secret of JetBlue’s Social Media Success (from Yahoo Travel)
Frank has since moved on from Comcast. He’s written a book about customer service, @Your Service, he’s working at another company, and he’s done consulting on customer service since leaving Comcast. But he’s still the man: The one guy who, for a while, made Comcast seem almost human. I recommend following his customer service writing on LinkedIn.
Here’s his advice on how customers — you and I — can use Twitter effectively.
Tip 1: Evaluate. Is your complaint valid?
Not every perceived slight makes for a valid complaint. Eliason said a lot of people complain about simple misunderstandings. Before you fire a shot, he said, take a step back and evaluate your position.
Tip 2: Keep it professional.
When an employee from a big company disses you, it’s hardly ever personal. That poor schmuck’s got a job, too, and he may be paid terribly and have received bad training. Don’t attack the person who offended you.
Duff made a mistake by calling out the Southwest gate agent by name. You’re more likely to have a positive outcome if you make your complaint about the business or a job function, and keep the people unnamed.
If an individual feels directly threatened, her defensiveness will kick in, and she may figure out how to retaliate and make things worse for you. Is that unprofessional? Absolutely. But why incite it if you don’t have to?
Tip 3: Help people see your side.
If you’re complaining to the Twittersphere, you want people to see you sympathetically. You might want to vent, but put yourself in the position of the person reading your vent. You want him to take up arms for your cause, right? Give him something to go on, not just, “Man, the customer service reps at [some company] are jerks.” Be specific. That way, your readers might have a better chance of identifying with your plight and be more likely to comment on or retweet your item.
Tip 4: Accentuate the positive.
Everybody complains. Few people praise. You can get a lot of mileage by highlighting good customer service experiences, too. According to Eliason, positive tweets about experiences with Comcast have served to reinforce good behavior in the company. Companies, like children, need rewards as well as scolding.
How often do you have something nice to say about your trash collectors? (Actual tweet from June 11, 2013.)
Furthermore, Eliason said, if your Twitter stream includes positive comments, people who end up reading it after you post a scathing complaint are more likely to take it seriously, because they can tell that you’re not just a whiner.
Tip 5: Twitter is a community, and it can help you.
When you tweet, you’re not just shouting into a mob. You’re connecting to real people. Somebody who reads a tweet might be able to help you. I’ve complained about issues before and have been helped by random people on Twitter who actually solved my problems.
Nobody wants to help a crazy person. Start nice. A tweet that says, “Does anybody know how to …” is more likely to get a response than a screed.
Tip 6: Take it private.
When things go really bad, Eliason said, you can often get good results by bypassing the Twitter mob and going straight to the CEO. It’s not terribly hard to find email addresses of company execs these days. Document your complaint, keep things brief and factual, and send your issue to the top. Your email might get intercepted by an assistant before the bigwig sees it, but it’s unlikely to get routed to an offshore call center like the call that infuriated you in the first place.
Tip 7: Remember what you want.
Finally, keep your goal in mind. If you want to rile up the world against a company (which, sometimes, is exactly what’s necessary), then that takes one approach.
But if you actually want to get a problem solved quickly, maybe a little openness and gentle persuasion will do a better job for you.