How to Handle Customer Service Complaints via Social Media

Knowing how to respond to customer service complaints on social media may help your business, according to these small-business owners.
April 19, 2016

It isn't always possible to address customer complaints over social media successfully. But when it happens, it can be sweet indeed.

A customer of Dupray, a Montreal-based e-commerce seller of steam irons and cleaners, took her gripes to social media when a service representative was slow to reply to her concern about a purchase. The customer wasn't shy about it, Matthew Mercuri, Dupray's digital marketing manager, recalls. "She posted the same message on Twitter, Instagram, Amazon and Facebook," Mercuri says.

Mercuri's team swung into action immediately, contacting the customer over the phone to help resolve her issue. "Within 10 minutes we had her convinced we were the best product in the industry," he says. "The thing that impressed her the most was that as soon as we saw these things on social media, we were speaking on the phone in three or four minutes." The complainer suddenly became a promoter, singing Dupray's praises via social media as energetically as she had complained.

The episode emphasizes the key reason why it is essential to respond to customer complaints that wind up on social media. "It's because of the public element," Mercuri says. "Social media is the perfect place to humiliate someone or air dirty laundry. Everyone can see it. And people enjoy seeing these mess-ups. So you have to [respond] properly and in a quick fashion."

Answering Online Customer Service Complaints Requires Speed

Annie Johnson, co-founder of TAPfit, a Melbourne, Australia-based marketer of home-based fitness systems, agrees. When a TAPFit customer reached out via social media about a delayed delivery, Johnson responded quickly via email. "I followed up again with a phone call," Johnson says. "We said, 'We'll do everything in our power to get your product to you.' And she's been an amazing online advocate ever since."

Johnson says responding as quickly as possible to complaints arriving via social media is simply good sense. "Customers can reach thousands of people on social media and have the potential to affect your brand," she says. "If you can address it quickly, it stops it, rather than it going further online."

The public aspect also increases the benefits that accrue when a business helps a customer who complains on social media. Since anyone can see what's going on between buyer and seller, a positive resolution reflects positively on the seller.

Customers can reach thousands of people on social media and have the potential to affect your brand. If you can address it quickly, it stops it, rather than it going further online.

—Annie Johnson, co-founder, TAPFit 

Jay Baer, president of digital marketing advisor of Bloomington, Indiana-based Convince & Convert, recalls how a reader left a very negative, one-star Amazon review of his latest book Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers. Baer responded directly on Amazon, telling the critic why he disagreed with the negative review, but also that he appreciated the fact that he had purchased the book.

Then he went further and offered to purchase any other book available on Amazon and send it to the reviewer free of charge. "That worked great," Baer says. "The person came back and said that was unnecessary. It mollified the person, but more importantly it shows to anybody who sees the review down the road what I stand for."

The Challenges of Managing Customer Service Complaints Online

Providing customer service via social media presents challenges as well as benefits. "The biggest thing is that people, especially online, tend to only have one of two positions," Mercuri says. "They either love your product or service or they hate it. We have very few three-star reviews. You either get one star or five stars."

It's difficult to shift the attitudes of customers who have taken extremely negative positions, Mercuri adds. "Changing their mind or accommodating them takes a lot of time and resources. It's a difficult uphill battle and it's not something you can do part-time," he says.

Since a quick response seems to be of the utmost importance, that means companies have to almost always be ready to move swiftly. "It's a seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day job," Mercuri says. "Someone has to be monitoring. You have people who may be posting from Australia at one in the morning."

Another issue is the proliferation of social media channels. "Managing all the different platforms is time consuming and confusing," Johnson says. "We have a tool that integrates all the platforms into one place. We find that allows us to answer customer complaints more quickly and efficiently."

Taking Online Customer Service Complaints Offline

Responding can sometimes be counterintuitive when it comes to choosing a channel for response. Customer service experts tend to say that when someone complains online, it's best to take it offline as quickly as possible. Mercuri, for instance, says they aim to immediately get a complainer on the phone.

"When they're on the phone, you're temporarily disabling their ability to hurt you online," he says. "I'm of the opinion that conflict resolution works best one on one. On the phone you're better able to express empathy and have more opportunity to arrive at a solution. And it's a lot more difficult for someone to hang up the phone on you than to ignore an email or a tweet."

Although it's easy and natural to get into long, drawn-out conversations on social media, Baer says it's best to keep it short and sweet. "Reply no more than twice," he says. "You should never reply more than twice to a customer in an online context."

After the second unsuccessful attempt to resolve via social media, he suggests asking customers to move to phone or email. "If they come back a third time, you walk away," Baer says. "You don't need to wrestle every customer to the ground. Do enough to show you care, then get out. The worst possible situation is getting into an increasingly negative tit-for-tat with a customer on social media."

Read more articles on customer engagement.

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