6 Tips for Brands on Responding to Customer Complaints on Twitter

Consumers perceive Twitter as a platform to amplify their complaints. Are brand responses always in their own - and their customers' - best interest?

Consumers perceive Twitter as a platform to amplify their product and service complaints, often without seeking other forms of redress. It’s widely recommended that speed is an essential response element – the faster the better.

Are brands that rapidly respond always acting in their own – and their customers’ – best interest? Can individual companies be sufficiently confident in the strength of their brands to stand down the “false urgency” of many negative tweets to respond more thoughtfully and effectively?

Most Americans are rather down on the customer service they receive. According to the American Express Global Customer Service Barometer released in July 1010, nearly two-thirds view customer service as more important to them in today’s economic environment, but about the same number feel businesses have either not changed their attitude towards customer service or are actually paying less attention to good service.

What are disgruntled consumers to do when a brand fails to deliver expected product quality or poor service? Frequently, they take their complaint right to Twitter or another social media channel anticipating that a public pronouncement of the problem will lead to a faster and/or better response than established brand channels. Lots of people feel – without even giving the toll-free number a chance – that most customer service departements are ineffective. Many of the complaining tweets and posts are, after all, about problems with customer service reps.

When a brand representative responsible for monitoring social media sees a complaint and responds within minutes, it’s usually viewed as deserving high-fives all around. Well, it’s more than about speed of response. Here are some tips for brands to better address customer complaints on social media channels:

1. Give your community a chance – The ultimate goal of brand presence on social media channels is to build a community of customers who will act as brand advocates. If your brand has achieved this, one of your non-employee community members might provide a more trusted response. If your own team responds too quickly, you risk “deactivating” members of the community.

2. Have one customer service department – While you may choose to have representatives assigned to specific channels (e.g., telephone, e-mail, social networks), your customer service department should be working from shared knowledge and customer databases. Whether you own presence on them or are just monitoring, every social media channel deserves the same quality attention and empowered representatives you give your other customer service portals.If your social media initiatives are truly a part of – rather than apart from – your overall company operations, that’s an easy one.

3. Make contact easy and personal – I’m impressed by companies that include the names and twitter handles of those who monitor their brands’ twitter accounts. Personalization is a key element in reducing conversation barriers – web sites should not have web forms (spam is a way of life, get over it), customer service call centers should have the smallest possible automated attendant tree (or none at all) and social media channels should attempt to steer complaints to conversations between real people. On any social media channel, complaint threads may soften when personal identity is attached.

4. The lifespan of a tweet is anywhere between a nanosecond and forever – A single hashtaged tweet written to attract your brand’s attention may be seen by fewer relevant channel members than your response. A poorly worded response by your brand could have more negative effects on those in your community than the original complaint.

Unless the complaint tweet is being retweeted (or Facebook post starts a thread of complaints, etc.) you have the time to post an acknowledgement – “@complainer I saw your message re #ourbrand and will respond to you within X hours or call me on 800-XXX-XXXX ext XX. Thx Henry”

Alternately, you can delay responding until you are able to determine if you can gather more background quickly before making a more specific public response. – “@complainer Our manual can be confusing about that problem. Call me on 800-XXX-XXXX ext XX or see http://bit.ly/xx for easy fix. Thx Henry”

5. Solve the problem – A problem is not solved when the complaint thread stops. It’s solved when the product, person or procedure that precipitated the problem is addressed. If the complaint is due to misconception or is unjustified, it can still inform your ongoing customer service improvement.

Though a majority of consumers are likely to feel better if their problem is resolved and they get something extra from you, be careful not to inadvertently communicate that the path to a better deal is to initially express dissatisfaction.

6. Reward acknowledgements of good service – There are several retail stores at which I shop that include the URL of an online survey on their printed receipt – go online, fill out the survey and enter to win some prize. Imagine if that were done in real time at the store. Clerk to me, “Was everything to your satisfaction?” “Yes.” “Thank you. You just won a $100 gift card. Mind if I thank you over the store PA system?”

Do that on social media. Randomly pick someone who says something nice about your brand, products or service and “gift” him or her on the channel. Better yet, reward someone who helps another community member. This can activate your community and create a more positive conversation sentiment.