Portrait angry woman shouting at her cell phone, enraged with bad service, burning with rage. Negative emotions feelings face expression
Portrait angry woman shouting at her cell phone, enraged with bad service, burning with rage. Negative emotions feelings face expression

The dark side to social media complaints

HOW often do we hear about consumers using formal channels of complaint to resolve an issue with a company only to be ignored or told the matter was investigated and then that "due process" was followed?

That's business-speak for "shut up and go away".

Frustrated, angry and completely let down, people then take their grievances to social media.

Outlining their problem and tagging all and sundry, the post goes viral, mainstream media leap on it and next thing we know, the company/individual issues a grovelling apology and (over) compensates the person.

This begs the question Kaleev Leerau asked recently in Forbes.com: "What does this tell us about customer service in the social media era?"

A great deal - and none of it very gratifying.

There was a time when a customer/client had limited means for complaint. There was an official process that, sometimes, depending on the nature of the objection, escalated up the company hierarchy.

Too often, as I know from personal experience regarding poor post-operative care (negligence) in a hospital that resulted in a visit to ICU, the outcome of the complaint (designed to prevent further problems for others) was a letter telling me that every staff member had behaved by the book. Not by mine it wasn't.

Numerous others have been given the same short-shift when dealing with corporations/businesses. But that was before the major megaphone that's social media.


Facebook has become a useful marketing tool for many businesses but a bad review online can be devastating.
Facebook has become a useful marketing tool for many businesses but a bad review online can be devastating.


Aggrieved customers can now reach hundreds, if not thousands, of potential and current customers in seconds, bypassing traditional methods of complaint.

What often follows is an avalanche of people describing similar situations. Sometimes, calls to boycott the business, service and even specific products can follow.

Keen to avoid a PR disaster, companies desperately try to stave off negative impact by responding swiftly and credibly to these problems - offering all sorts of recompense to make the people, posts and problem go away.

As Leerau writes: "I was amazed just how many situations each (of his colleagues and neighbours) had experienced with companies large and small where complaining to a manager or writing an email yielded nothing, but a brief tweet generated an immediate apology and correction of the problem."

Is it any wonder people don't bother to fill out forms, write emails or make phone calls anymore? Especially when you can already predict the outcome.

Social media might allow us ordinary folk to shed light on dark corporate practices, but it's also become a form of blackmail where simply the threat of social media is enough to ensure a result.

The problem is how open to exploitation this is. Businesses tell stories of folk who, keen to take advantage of professional social media vulnerability, either threaten to write bad reviews unless they get special treatment or invent terrible experiences simply to impact negatively on business competition or as personal payback. Then there are those who turn molehills into PR mountains and make a living out of complaining.

Do people still lodge complaints in person?
Do people still lodge complaints in person?



But who's to blame for this? If companies bothered to respond seriously and quietly to legitimate concerns in the first place, treat the complainer and their issue with even a modicum of respect, and not just silence people with the words "due process", there'd be no need for social media to be part of the equation.

Another offshoot of disputes on social media achieving positive outcomes is that people are now inclined to do this with problems in their personal lives too.

Airing your dirty linen has never been more public. The irony is, while folk will be empathetic, sympathetic and respond, they'll also be entertained by jilted lover rants, accusations, descriptions of bad behaviour, and raging arguments over social media. Yet, this kind of public naming and shaming can backfire horribly.

For decades we've seen various celebrities and TV personalities discuss their failed relationships in the pages of magazines. Managed by spin doctors, aided by PR professionals, even if their stories were often unpalatable and shone a poor light on the one doing the revealing.

While our appetite for these kinds of lurid accounts hasn't (sadly) decreased, the difference is now, there's no gatekeeper or filter - so via Facebook, Twitter and other social media, we're getting the tales raw and real and straight from, not just the celebrities' mouths, but any aggrieved individual.

While it can be reassuring to find others who've similarly suffered (been cheated on, dumped, embarrassed, angered, fooled etc), it can come at a cost.

Unlike business complaints that can achieve affirmative results, those who try to publicly discredit boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, even parents and friends by loudly (and often obtusely) complaining about them and seeking support, mostly shame themselves.

We're often told we should behave online as we do in real life. But for companies dealing with irate customers, the opposite would serve everyone better.

Karen Brooks is a Courier-Mail columnist.