Preventing Customer Service Fumbles from Going Viral: A Social Media Cautionary Tale

There have always been companies who are disreputable, uncaring or too self-important to listen to their customers and have ignored complaints seemingly without penalty. Consumers have traditionally had few options to get their issues addressed. The Better Business Bureau takes complaints, but has no teeth to actually penalize a company. Taking a company to small claims court is difficult, and usually not worthwhile. Often a customer’s only recourse was to contact newspapers and television stations who had a columnist or reporter dedicated to resolving these customer horror stories. For example, my local paper, the San Jose Mercury News has a daily feature, Action Line, by columnist Dennis Rockstroh, who has a wonderful record of getting companies to do the right thing. (Plus it makes for interesting reading.)

Photo of a lit bomb
Today, thanks to social media, the traditional landscape of customer service and satisfaction has morphed dramatically full of pitfalls and traps for the unresponsive or slow-to-respond company. The customer now has the power to make a company publicly uncomfortable for ignoring complaints. Companies that don’t quickly and correctly address customers’ concerns can have a public relation nightmare on their hands at lightning speed, thanks to the immediacy of social media and the ease of interesting stories taking off virally.

Here are two cautionary tales that all social media practitioners, if they haven't already, should be taking to heart.

Regretsy and Paypal

Regretsy is a website I’d never heard of before the pre-Christmas drama with Paypal. According to an article by CNN Tech, “Run by actress-comedian April Winchell, Regretsy is a snarky blog created primarily to mock what it considers awkward, ugly or otherwise head-turning offerings on the arts-and-crafts site Etsy. It’s a site that makes fun of Etsy items for sale.”

Ms. Winchell has a close knit group of fans, and every year she raises funds from her fans to buy and send gifts to families who need a little help for the holidays.

This past Christmas, for the first time, she used the Donate button on Paypal to collect these donations, which were thousands of dollars. Using the button triggered a Paypal alert, and they froze her Paypal accounts. She got on the phone with a customer service representative, who was arrogant and dismissive of her problems. According to April Winchell, part of the conversation went like this:

PAYPAL: Only a nonprofit can use the Donate button.
ME: That’s false. It says right in the PDF of instructions for the Donate button that it can be used for “worthy causes.”
PAYPAL: I haven’t seen that PDF. And what you’re doing is not a worthy cause, it’s charity.
ME: What’s the difference?
PAYPAL: You can use the donate button to raise money for a sick cat, but not poor people.

I won’t repeat any more of it here it was poorly managed  by Paypal at multiple points and got worse before it got better, while it dragged on for several days. You can read the full Regretsy article on the website.

The Twitterverse picked up this story which is how I became aware of it and it trended for a good 48 hours, with an immense amount of backlash against Paypal.

End result:  Paypal finally did the right thing by unfreezing April Winchell's accounts, and even made a donation to her Christmas present fund, but it took too long and it was not pretty.

Here's the second cautionary tale I’d like to highlight.

The Sons of Maxwell and United Airlines

In 2008, a band called the Sons of Maxwell were flying to a gig in Nebraska, according to their story. At the Chicago airport, a baggage handler was seen roughly handling band member Dave Carroll’s custom-made $3500 guitar; causing significant damage. Dave Carroll bounced around from person to person at United Airlines, with no resolution to his damage claim for nine months, so he wrote a song about his experience and posted it on YouTube. It went viral almost immediately, and today has had 11 ½ million hits.
United Airlines resolved his case immediately then, but the incident reportedly cost the company $180 million, according to an article in The Business Insider. 

Often, these customer service mishaps are first posted on a company’s social media channels, giving the social media manager the opportunity to fix it before it gets out of control. 

However, there was a frightening article published in October, 2011, that stated: 70% of Companies Ignore Customer Complaints on Twitter. In addition, it also says, "Previous research from ExactTarget called Twitter X-Factors showed that fewer than 1% of customers use Twitter as their first stop in problem resolution. In almost every case, the people complaining on Twitter are doing so because your company already failed to satisfy them in one or more traditional customer service channels."
Scary stuff, isn’t it?

So the moral of the story for social media managers?

You can’t control the customer service department at your company, even though a direct line to a management connection in that department can help immensely. But you can respond immediately when a complaint appears on any of your social media channels, and let the customer know that you’ve heard him, and are working on an answer. And then do it. Escalate the issue as quickly as you can internally, and when you have a resolution, make sure that you publish the resolution on the social media channel where the complaint first appeared. How you respond will be noted by your fans and followers.

I don't know about you, but being held up as the poster child or business case study of "what not to do" is nothing I'm interested in pursuing.

Image: graur razvan ionut /
Image: Pixomar /

Go Ahead — Blame Social Networking for the Photo Explosion

Trite but true: A picture is worth a thousand words.

Photographs have been invaluable in the communication of information since the photographic process became a reality in 1836 thanks to Louis Daguerre. Photos have documented all of life's important events: weddings, births, graduations, vacations the list is endless. And photos have always been important in publications; but they've been the bailiwick of professionals who had the vision, equipment, talent, and budget to create and reproduce their work. For amateurs, photography publication choices were limited to photo albums or slide shows. And I don't know about you, but I used to wait to develop film until I had enough to make the trip worthwhile, and usually by then, I had no idea what was on the rolls of film any longer.  

Things have definitely changed with the invention and proliferation of digital cameras that keep getter better and cheaper. Would it surprise you to discover that according to a recent U.S. study, 27% of photos and videos are now captured on smartphones? And with today's social media applications, anyone can create and illustrate custom content almost instantaneously. With instant upload apps to Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and photo galleries you can easily post photos online straight from your smartphone and invite friends and family to share the experience or adventure as it's happening. "Wish you were here" has an entirely new meaning now, doesn't it?

Facebook's 800 million users upload, on average, more than 250 million photos per day.* And to get some idea of the explosion in the sheer number of uploaded photos, take a look at this article, which shows an installation by Erik Kessels looking at the future of photography by featuring printouts of all the images uploaded to Flickr in a 24-hour period. It's pretty mind blowing. (I know they're making a artistic point, but I shudder at the decadent use/waste of all that paper with our focus on conservation.)

Do some people overshare? Of course. But some things never change they overshared before social media, inviting you over to watch the hundreds of photos of their trip to the wilds of downtown Omaha, Nebraska. Personally I enjoy knowing what my friends and colleagues are up to, and I love discovering new places and things from their posts and photos.

Social media sites = Photo repositories

I think it is more than fair to lay the responsibility for the photo explosion at the feet of social networking. And think of all of the benefits:
  • No more boxes of unsorted photos to trip over
  • You know exactly where your friends and family are at all times and what they're doing
  • Aunt Edna can friend you on Facebook to share her Omaha photos you don't have to sit through the slide show.

2012 Personal New Year's Not-Resolutions

I'm not a resolution person. The years I make them, I inevitably break them actually, it's pretty well guaranteed I will, just from the sheer pressure I put on myself. I'm more successful when I look at places in my life where I'd like to make incremental changes (not resolutions), and work into them gradually. This article in the Washington Post runs along the same lines. (We could just be talking semantics here, but that's okay I'll live with it.)

Having time off in the last two weeks, taking a social networking break and updating only my personal status on Facebook gave me a much-needed breather. I also refreshed my vision board, which I felt worked very well for me in 2010, and I skipped in 2011 with a not-surprising lackluster personal year. (If you've never heard of a vision board, check it out here.)

So a few things I want to work on in 2012 both personally and professionally:
  • Make dinner more frequently for my kids ahead of time (crock pot meals and casseroles) so that I can work out around dinner time with much less guilt and/or skipping entirely
  • Resume my regular workout schedule that went awry with a running injury last year
  • Take a quick break from my computer daily and walk my dogs around the block
  • Tame my social media-induced ADD and schedule social media scans
  • Blog more frequently with shorter posts
  • Keep a running list of blog posts and tweets and articles I want to look at later instead of leaving 45 tabs open in my browser that inevitably get lost when my browser crashes
  • Apply some cool things I've learned recently about personal branding to my own brand
What about you?  What are you going to change in 2012?