The Fallacy of Social Media Customer Service

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.

But why?

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?

  • Chris Walbert

    Great post. I have been thinking many of the same things lately. Complaining on the internet is really the most passive aggressive way to handle a poor customer service situation. Instead of speaking to the manager at the store, calling the company, and investing our time, it’s so much easier and less painful to complain about it via Twitter.

    I even saw a tweet this morning where someone was complaining about 2 people talking loudly during a class/training session. Why not say something directly to those people? Because it’s easier to bitch about it on the internet than to have a human interaction that could possibly be uncomfortable.

    Sometimes the internet is the proper place for a customer complaint, but oftentimes, face-to-face will actually solve the issue, even if it is uncomfortable.

  • Mike P

    Love it, I just wrote something similar yesterday

    Along the same lines


  • Pingback: uberVU - social comments

  • Karthik

    I agree with most of what you’re written, Justin; my post titled ‘Whine flu’ covered them as well, so I’m in sync. Except that part on brands’ overreaction that every single tweet can destroy a brand/ company.

    Well, it certainly can’t, but never underestimate the power of the viral – people have been complaining for ages, no doubt, but with the advent of social media, suddenly, the equivalent of whining loudly standing in the middle of Times Square or 42nd is now very real and feasible. if the older whine was one-to-one, now we have one-to-many whines. It doesn’t take much to see why the latter can be particularly damaging.

    Of course, that depends on how popular that whiner could be – judged by the number of people he’s connected to, but consider the spread if a Brogan finds the whine reasonable enough for a RT or a blog post.

    The point is, brands can ignore whining at the risk of a decent, solid whine spreading fast. But they being cognizant of those whines and addressing the most-potentially damaging ones publicly does really help in creating a positive perception of the brand.

    My blog post, for whatever its worth, if it doesn’t look like a link bait,

  • Dara Bell

    Love it smacks heavily of Cluetrain. Perhaps we will vote with our wallets and be vocal. It is not 1999 and the technology allows fr it.

    Dara R Bell

  • Pingback: Protecting Your Brand From Online Attacks

  • Kelly McPhee

    Great advice. I try to remember that some people do just like to complain. I answer all of the customer emails at Cloudbrain for TidySongs and it’s hard because some users would just like to be negative. We work with any user that legitimately wants help, but it’s hard differentiating those that just want to complain with the ones that would like help. Ever since it became so easy to post something on a blog, it’s what some users would rather do. It’s not that they want an answer or help they just want to post something negative. It’s very strange. A lot of times, it’s from users that have not even contacted us first or even purchased the program (which unlocks some features that they post about.) I would much rather them just send me an email so that we could help the user instead of searching on the internet for these users that are posting a specific issue to themselves on a random blog. I try to find posts about us and give advice to get them on track, but it would be so much easier if they would write directly to me.

  • Russell Dunkin


    I know this wasn’t the crux of the post, but I loved the part about meeting your “twitter friend” on vacation. I’ll be doing something similar in San Diego this winter, and in telling that part to friends, family, or coworkers, they look at me like I’m insane. Oh well!

  • Paul O’Mahony (Cork)

    I disagree. Not with all you say, but with the core of it. My view is that you miss the point of the consumer. I read Chris Brogan’s complaint. I’ve experienced the same disappointment in a shop when I tried to buy what the company promised me I could buy. We’ve all experienced disappointment in our relations with business.
    Chris Brogan’s key point was that the staff he met didn’t seem to care. They did nothing to fix his problem of lack of boots. It’s the lack of care about what the potential customer is left with that’s the issue.
    Staff that don’t care is a leadership issue. Any company that employs staff that don’t care (or seem to care) is being poorly led. One result of Chris Brogan being left unsatisfied is that I consider that business to have a poor leader. Caterpiller is selling its product thru one outlet that’s faulty.
    Your post sounds to me as if it’s comforting to poor leaders. Leaders that wish customers would complain in the way they’d like them to complain.
    As I consumer, I go from coffee house to coffee house tweeting about the service I get. Sometime I complain to the staff I see. Most times I think this shows the mind of the owner/leader. I don’t feel like complaining to the individual because the employee has done their best. Their best hasn’t been good enough, yet. But they are probably unaware of a higher standard required by the business.
    Your post says many things I admire. But look at the previous comment “… it would be so much easier if they would write directly to me.” That illustrates my point perfectly.
    Please change your approach. It’ll do you no good.
    I send you these thought from a very wet Ireland.

  • Steve Phillips

    Bingo. I want customer service when I call you or when I talk to you face-to-face. Interesting, businesses will follow me on Twitter and will only respond when I post a message about their product, service, etc.

    However, when I call them to discuss the matter, I am discounted. Businesses are just as guilty following and “protecting” their brand on the internet as every consumer is guilty about being passive aggressive on Twitter.

    I think, as a whole, we just like to bitch no matter the topic. Bitch about our job, the waitress, the food, the weather, traffic, education, taxes, government, etc., etc.

    Amazing, however, we have mastered the art of complaining in 140 characters or less.

  • Maggie McGary

    I love this post–even though I admit to being guilty of taking advantage of companies’ hyper-awareness to what’s being said about them online. You are absolutely right; Chris Brogan complaining about something versus me complaining about something mean two vastly different things inn terms of each of our personal influence quotient. But if I, the customer, know that this is the Wild West time of “the customer is always right” and companies tripping over themselves to treat, me, a nobody, like royalty…well, I’ll take it while I can get it. In time I’m sure the market will adjust and the equilibrium will return and people like me will go back to being invisible. But for now, me complaining and companies responding and then me appreciating it–it does benefit those businesses too. It helps them build their case internally, justifying their positions as social media responders and it lets them strut their customer service stuff to establish themselves as brands who “get it.” Both valuable, I think.

    I blogged about this a few weeks ago–the concept that no small part of companies’ social media efforts are about good PR in a climate where social media is very buzz-worthy.

  • Pingback: Twitted by Culturevore

  • Duff

    If you can’t rant on Twitter, then where can you? :)

    I think a little ranting is just fine. But I agree that corporate customer service should lay off the immediate contacting of everyone who does so. I’ve found such above-and-beyond service to be annoying and usually just as unhelpful as waiting on hold. Either way, the company in question usually can’t fix my problem, which is why I’m ranting.

  • Pingback: Community Management Should Include In-House Culture | wordpost

  • Pingback: Daily Digest for December 2nd « My Blog

  • Tommy Vallier

    I didn’t read through all of the comments, but I think people are fine to rant on their blog, Facebook, Twitter and whatever – the line simply needs to be that just because you rant, doesn’t mean anything will or should come from it. Much like a letter to the editor, anyone can write one and any of them can be published but a published letter about your windshield wipers breaking doesn’t entitle you to a new car.

    I’m with you though, Justin, on the being asked the axe murderer question. In fact, I can remember one November when I hopped onto 4 different buses and went down to a city in western PA just filled with axe murderers. ;)

  • Chris Hall

    On one hand I totally agree with you, and have struggled with the need to “meet customers where they are” when there is already an established toll free process to resolve issues that is as easy as complaining on Twitter.

    Also, if a company CEO, John Mackey, can alienate a large percentage of his Whole Foods customer demographic by espousing his views on health reform and walk away with higher revenues and a better stock price, in the same quarter he made the statement, then Chris Brogan or Jeff Jarvis are not going to topple your business with a negative tweet or blog post.

    But on the other hand, I do think that there is something to everybody being important enough to warrant a big company, or any company for that matter, taking the time to see what they can do to help.

    It’s easy for a faceless person to treat people poorly and hide behind the point to point communication of a toll free help line like it never happened. Handling complaints out in the open levels the playing field, and I do like that aspect of it. To your point though, we as consumers need to figure out that abusing this privilege will ruin it.

  • Pingback: Personal Branding vs Brand Democratisation | The Wings of Wax Project

  • Pingback: Cool and Uncool Insiders and Outsiders — hallicious

  • Pingback: Personal Branding vs Brand Democratisation | iRountree

  • Pingback: Webspace/Realspace Divide In Courage | Ian M Rountree

  • Pingback: The Critical Mass Of Listening | Brand Elevation Through Social Media and Social Business | Altitude Branding

  • DaraBell

    Think I agree with Amber here that we can be too demanding, I would say it is give and take push and pull.

  • Pingback: The Importance of Boundaries | Brand Elevation Through Social Media and Social Business | Altitude Branding