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When your cable goes down, the airline loses your luggage or your new laptop won't boot up, you can phone the company's customer service line and watch a chunk of the day disappear while you wait on hold for your chance to argue with a call-center representative.
Or you can fire off a quick Tweet or post on the company's Facebook wall and go about your day.
Not surprisingly, many people now choose the latter course. According to a survey by social media research firm NM Incite, 47% of social media users "actively seek" customer service through social media channels, and 30% say they prefer that method to the traditional phone call.
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But is tweeting really the most effective way to get your customer service issue resolved?
Taking Your Complaints Public
The biggest argument in favor of using social media to lodge customer service complaints is that it takes your gripes public. By calling out a company in front of an audience, you force the company to consider not only its relationship with you but also its public image.
"It's a very public channel," says Randy Brasche, director of marketing for customer service software firm Genesys. "When you're on the phone, its one-to-one. On Twitter, it's one to many."
And that means that if a company doesn't resolve a complaint to the customer's satisfaction, it isn't just losing a customer -- it's also potentially facing a public relations disaster.
There are countless examples of customer complaints that went viral over social media. In 2008, baggage handlers at United Airlines broke Canadian musician Dave Carroll's guitar. After the airline's customer service representatives refused to compensate him, he made a music video about the incident that has garnered more than 12.5 million views.
More recently, Star Trek: The Next Generation star Patrick Stewart tweeted that he'd "lost the will to live" after waiting 36 hours for Time Warner to install cable at his Brooklyn apartment. Captain Picard's grievance was retweeted more than 1,800 times and was picked up by a handful of media outlets.
Both incidents hold the same lesson: The customer you leave unsatisfied has the potential to turn into a PR nightmare for your company. So when a customer lodges a complaint in a public forum, most companies are eager to nip the problem in the bud.
(And even absent PR considerations, social media is often a good way to get through when the phone lines are bust. Reuters reports that in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, some storm-affected residents unable to get through to their insurance companies by phone have found success by tweeting at them.)
More Followers = Better Customer Service?
Knowing that the stakes are higher, says Brasche, some companies are staffing their social media accounts with more experienced customer service reps. Indeed, a particularly good online response can go viral too, burnishing the company's reputation for customer care.
"A lot of the savvy ones that do this right see it as an opportunity to enhance their brand," he says. "That consumer, who might have 10,000 followers, thanks the airline or thanks the bank, and that turns into a PR coup."
While we'd like to think that companies will take care of their customers just because it's the right thing to do, we really can't complain if they're bending over backwards for us in the name of good PR. Still, it's not hard to see the potential downside of the merging of customer service and public relations. Genesys, for instance, announced in June that it was partnering with Klout -- which develops scores to measure a person's influence on social media -- to create a system that helps prioritize customers by their social influence.
"Customers... may have a high social media influence and amplification, and represent a tremendous value to a company," Genesys explained in a press release announcing the partnership. "An individual with several thousand followers on Twitter has the potential to cause irreparable damage to a company's brand."
It's a move that makes all the sense in the world for a company worried about its brand image; Time Warner no doubt wishes it had prioritized Patrick Stewart's cable installation over that of his less-famous neighbors, for instance. Still, we're guessing that most consumers aren't crazy about the idea that their importance as a customer could rest on how many Twitter followers they have.
Gadi BenMark , senior VP of Client Development at social media consultancy NM Incite, says that companies jumping on the "social care" bandwagon often make one of two mistakes. One is to take experienced customer service reps from call centers and assign them to the Twitter feed -- what BenMark calls "the reality show of customer service." The call-center workers, while equipped to answer in-depth questions, are unaccustomed to the high level of scrutiny that comes with responding to queries in a public setting.
The other mistake is to go the opposite route.
"They'll say, 'Lets put a bunch of college grads on it, they have the gene for social media,'" says BenMark. "They could be well-intentioned, but they're not equipped and empowered to answer questions in depth." In such situations, he says, the person manning the Twitter feed might wind up just advising the customer to call the main customer service phone number, which for the customer defeats the purpose of going through social media in the first place.
"The biggest issue with social media is when a complaint or issue is much too complicated to answer in 140 characters," says Jeff Wiss of ZenDesk, which makes customer service software for businesses. "It's best to use [Twitter] as place to receive the issue, and then take it to another channel." Often that means initiating a direct-message conversation to get more information, and in cases where a more technical solution is required, the representative will arrange for technical support staff to contact the customer directly.
A company adept with social media should be able to handle this process with grace and aplomb. While you could do research to determine whether a given company has embraced social care, it's probably easiest to just fire off a quick Tweet or Facebook post and see what happens.
"It takes 10 seconds to tweet, and if you don't receive an answer in a very short time frame, then you should pick up the phone and call," says BenMark, who adds that it won't be long before every major retailer and service provider is up to speed with Twitter and Facebook. "Two years from now, a company without social care will look just as odd as one without a website looks now."