Ever since Comcast “changed the game” of online customer service, companies have been scouring Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the web, eager to ferret out bad customer experiences and turn those consumerist frowns upside down.
Not that good customer service shouldn’t be the cornerstone of every company’s philosophy. (Try building your business without it and see how far you go.) But why does a pithy rant on Twitter send CSR reps scrambling, while a well-reasoned complaint from a phone-in customer barely causes a ripple?
One word: perception.
If a Minimum Wage Employee Ignores You in the Middle of an Outlet Mall, Does Your Blog Make a Sound?
When Chris Brogan had a miserable time buying a pair of shoes, he made his experience public. I’m sure part of his goal was to draw attention to just how lousy most retail customer service is, and to foster a dialogue intended to weed out some of those problems. But, like any human being, he was also pissed about having his time wasted by uncaring salesclerks and poor management, and he simply wanted to vent.
And when people like Brogan (or Jeff Jarvis) have a lousy time at the market, the market notices. Why? Because a complaint from Brogan or Jarvis is the equivalent of a complaint from TV Guide or Entertainment Weekly. Different medium, same (relative) circulation, and same capacity to (theoretically) create a PR headache for whoever those companies actually do pay to care.
The problem? Companies who don’t understand the Internet also don’t understand that you aren’t Chris Brogan. When you complain about a company’s endless hold time on Twitter, that tweet looks the same to their PR intern as when Michael Arrington complains about the exact same thing. And while each of your concerns may be equally meritorious, in the real world, Arrington’s would be taken seriously because he’s Newsweek while yours would be ignored because you’re Vintage Doilies Quarterly. But online, you all look the same, and that means everything is worth panicking over.
Which leads to the next problem: fear.
Online, Everyone’s an Axe Murderer
In April, I went to Seattle and Portland on vacation. While I was there, I met a friend I’d known on Twitter but whom I’d never actually met in person. When I mentioned this to my parents during my recap of the trip, they were aghast. My dad actually said: “And you’re not worried that this person’s an axe murderer?”
Nope. But that’s because I’m either incredibly naive or incredibly capable of understanding how the Internet works. I pride myself on being able to tell the humans from the bots, the heroes from the douchebags and the axe murderers from the people I can trust enough to meet over brunch.
Part of corporate culture’s overreaction to web complaints stem from the related myth that everything online has the capacity to destroy you. Just like the Baby Boomer generation has an illogical (in the eyes of their kids) fear of oversharing online, the businesses built by these mindsets are suddenly alarmed by the idea that one word from an online bogeyman can detonate their life’s work, so they take the pre-emptive step of treating every public complaint like it’s being delivered by a horde of barbarians, eager to rape and pillage.
People have had negative customer experiences for centuries, and they’ve been talking about those experiences with anybody who’s willing to listen. If the frustrations experienced by my own friends and family haven’t caused me to completely write off the possibility of doing business with those same retailers or service providers, why would a rant from a complete stranger have more of an impact on my decision-making process?
Sure, we can see more customer complaints online. But those are the same complaints people were already having in the first place. That companies (and fellow consumers) can now tabulate them in no way makes them more (or less) valid than they were when we couldn’t. It’s the merit of the complaint that matters, not the medium used to express it.
But from the way we whinge all over the tubes, you’d never know it.
140 Characters of Hate Does Not Entitle You to a Pony
Consumers of the world, listen up: complaining on Twitter is not an invitation for the company to hear you, much less care about your plight. Everyone with a keyboard has the capacity to flail for attention, and most of us do. And while your aggravations may be real, typing them “out here, where everyone can see just how badly I was treated” doesn’t make you a martyr. It makes you whining attention whore. (Especially when you type about those petty transgressions IN ALL CAPS.)
If you stood outside Nokia’s corporate headquarters screaming “the interface on my new phone sucks!” they wouldn’t take that as an invitation to walk outside and teach you how to use your new phone; they’d see it as a reason to call security. So why should you bitching about them on Twitter be seen any differently?
There’s a difference between constructive criticism and self-centered complaining. It’s easy to write off the latter as the product of an entitled society, but it’s difficult to ignore the kind of criticism that seeks to address and improve a perceived problem. And yet valid criticism also requires thoughtful analysis on the part of the customer, who’s usually only invested enough of themselves in the experience to say: “This sucks. Fix it.”
And they may be right.
But they were right before Twitter, and they’ll be right after we’re all bitching telepathically.
So can we all just calm down?