In 2008, musician Dave Carroll was flying through Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on his way to a gig in Omaha. While changing planes, United Airlines baggage handlers smashed his $3,500 guitar.
The situation was cut and dry. The guitar was in excellent condition when he boarded the flight, but permanently destroyed by the time he got to his destination. United, he figured, should compensate him for his guitar.
However, United Airlines did not see it that way. In fact, all they did was ignore his requests for compensation. This went on for a few months. Realizing he was not getting anywhere, Carroll decided to use his musical talents to get United to listen to his complaint. On YouTube, he posted a song, "United Breaks Guitars."
Carroll did not think the video would garner that much attention, but he was very wrong. The first day it was uploaded, 150,000 views of the video were recorded. In time, more than 1.5 million people watched the video. At about the same time, United noticed its stock was taking a tumble, and most observers believed it was at least partially due to the negative publicity the video generated.
Now, United stepped up to the plate. They compensated Carroll for his guitar, plus offered him more for all that he went through.
Carroll graciously suggested that United give the excess money to a charity. This turned Carroll from the victim into a "good guy." But the calamity left United with a glowing black eye that took a long time to heal.
This may be an extreme example. Lots of companies have suffered black eyes over the years because of social media.
Ironically, many businesses and organizations are investing billions of dollars to take advantage of all the marketing opportunities social media has to offer. Yet, most do not have a coherent plan in place to deal with a customer complaint or, as in Carroll's case, prevent a firestorm from erupting.
A few years back, researchers at a French business school investigated situations like this.
They analyzed nearly 480,000 complaints posted on Facebook against 89 U.S. companies. The researchers found there was no common thread between how social media complaints were addressed.
Some companies ignored the complaints; others went overboard with apologies. With no clear policy to react to customer complaints, most of the companies had what could be called a "trial and error" and "hope for the best" approach to handling complaints about social media.
As a result, the researchers came up with some suggestions on how organizations can identify complaint posts that could cause them public relations problems, put out fires quickly, and limit social media damage. Among them are the following:
Identifying posts most likely to go viral.
Studying the nearly half-million social media complaints, they uncovered nearly 16,000 that went viral. What they all shared in common was emotion.
The posts were written by people who were very upfront about their anger, anxiety, or disgust about something that had happened to them working with an organization or a product or service they had purchased from a business. This tells social media departments they must pay attention to emotional posts. Addressing them quickly, even if they are later discovered to be unwarranted, is the most effective route to take.
Speed is of the essence.
This leads to their second suggestion. Emotional or not, organizations must respond quickly to complaints. "The worst thing you can do is ignore the customer," according to one of the researchers. What happens next is that others "will jump in and support the complaint."
Stemming the fire.
Once a complaint has been uncovered, we know businesses must respond quickly. But how? The first step, according to the researchers, is with one sincere but professional apology. However, do not publicly offer to compensate the complaining customer. This opens the door for others to complain that they had a similar experience. Instead, and as quickly as possible, ask the customer to switch to a private channel for further correspondence. Email, or even better, a phone call. This throws water on the fire, gives the customer time to vent privately, the business more time to investigate the situation, and prevents or at least minimizes how viral the post becomes.
Finally, while the researchers said none of the U.S. businesses they investigated had similar, consistent policies dealing with social media complaints, they did notice something that many of them shared: They had a "canned" apology script.
"In some cases, the people in social media departments follow a script—the replies are always the same," according to the researchers. "That's a clear sign that the company is not really attending to the situation."
Worse: it quickly becomes clear to everyone else that the response is canned. That's when problems begin.
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Prepared for DS&P by AlturaSolutions Communications