Social Business, Social Media Strategy, Social Media Staffing and Operations

How Social Media and Smartphones Breed a Petri Dish of Negativity

photo from

photo from

Jay Baer Blog PostIt’s time to recalibrate your expectations about customer complaints.

57% of Americans will have a smartphone this year, meaning that the majority of your customers (and in some industries, the vast majority) now possess two things, at all times, in their pants:

  1. Access to almost the entirety of the world’s knowledge
  2. Several different mechanisms to instantly express their displeasure

As Amber Naslund and I wrote in The NOW Revolution way back in 2010, every customer is a reporter. But now, smartphone proliferation and the app-ification of interaction is enabling and encouraging them to file their reports more easily than ever.

I don’t know what business you’re in, but I’d be willing to wager that your customer complaint volume is going up, not down. Even with your commitment to humanization, social outreach, customer experience and all the rest, you’re still getting more angry missives than ever.

It’s certainly true in the airline industry, where LA Times reports that complaint volume is up 30% year-over-year. It’s happening at McDonald’s, too, despite their major commitment to real-time customer service via social media (listen to the Social Pros interview with their social media head Rick Wion for details). A recent Wall Street Journal article about the chain’s customer service issues noted that perhaps complaints are up because customers have more ways to complain:

The reason behind the rise in customer complaints is unclear, but some franchisees say it could be partly because customers now have more ways to supply feedback.

I Hate You (but not to your face)

I absolutely believe this is at least a contributing factor.

Customers don’t dislike you more, we’ve just removed all barriers to complain. (Tweet this)

If nothing else, social media and always-on Internet access has made us all passive aggressive. I have witnessed people sitting in a restaurant and tweeting negativity without first speaking to waitstaff or a manager. Hotel managers have told me that they are seeing more Trip Advisor reviews than front desk complaints.

Psychologically, it all adds up. Why go through the emotional toil of calling someone out face-to-face when we can hide behind our avatars and mobile devices?

This trend will not ebb. The genie will not go back in the bottle. You need to start measuring results of social media customer service via survey-driven satisfaction indices, rather than cases handled and call deflection, because the idea that socializing service will result in fewer overall complaints is a misconception. Or so it appears to me.

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  1. says

    Jay, I agree that it’s now easier to be negative than ever before (and focus on negativity), but by the same token, it’s also easier to be positive. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and others allow you to give realtime feedback to customers, generate excitement, and build a community now that the internet is in everyone’s pocket. Customer Service needs to adapt to the changing times as well—we can’t always expect users to send us an email, call support, etc. when it’s so easy for them to tweet to us. We need to meet them on their own terms, and helpdesk platforms like Zendesk are moving in this direction.

    I think the same thing is happening with social sharing and blog comments; it’s interesting that there are 44 “reactions” to your post but no comments yet.


    • says

      Completely agree. Much easier to retweet than comment. And I concur that overall customer contacts should go up, not just negative. Great comment!

  2. Roz Bishop says

    I believe you will find anything to substantiate anything depending on your focus. For me I am able to find just as much if not more sense of positivity – that’s my focus. I look for whats working – do that. Businesses that want to thrive in this economy need to think on their feet and adapt to the new. Tony Robbins quotes “The quality of our lives is directly related to the amount of uncertainty we can live with comfortably’. Uncertainty is the new norm. Each and every customer wants the experience of feeling special, and that’s what businesses have to keep in mind to have raving fans. With the accessibility to all the various streams of social media people have the ability to generate conversations around satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) and create a following that can blackban old thinking as was the case with the United Airlines broke Dave Carroll’s guitar. Businesses that are thriving have created a community where the experience of the customer is so fantastic complaints pale into insignificance. The community filled with raving fans champion each other and the businesses to survive and thrive. Throwing the logs onto the campfire. Businesses whose complaints are up – need to rethink their business model.

    • says

      I know what you’re saying, but I disagree. Technology has made it easier to complain, so more people complain who might not have previously. To say that just being a great business defies technology trends and consumer behavior is too much Robbins and not enough logic – at least for me.

      • says

        Gotta admit, somedays it’s REALLY difficult to control the urge to vent my frustrations with a particular company via a tweet. Although I shy away from being public with my rants, I can understand the passive aggressive gratification someone might acheive by publicly mentioning a negative experience they had with a company.

        When people complain publicly via twitter or facebook, they are rarely ignored, and we can often witness the resolution unfolding between the complainer & company through social media. Amidst the public complaints, the public conflict resolution is what allows a business to (as Roz said) “thrive & survive”

  3. Charmon Stiles says

    Jay, I agree with both you and Aaron. It is easier to respond to any situation either negative or positive in the moment with instant access to the Internet. But, we need to keep using our voices. Many businesses want to know how they are doing whether it is good or bad. If we stop using our actual voices we may end up like some version of Wall-E. Take a moment to look up and out into the world to communicate and not only to your device! If it’s important enough to post online, than it can be important enough to tell someone to their face. Now 202 ‘reactions’.

  4. fatrabbit CREATIVE says

    Thanks for the insight, Jay. Do you think the rise in complaints over social media is because it’s easier to complain “without a face” – or because these complaints have always existed, and customers finally have a way to express themselves directly to the vendor?

    • says

      Outstanding question. I pondered that a lot while writing the post. I think it’s the latter. Technology has made it easier to sound off, so we complain about things we would have blown off previously. Merits real research, of course.

      • fatrabbit CREATIVE says

        It seems like the new question of engagement will be how companies will evaluate which complaints have merit and which don’t, in terms of time spent. Thanks for responding (and for the valuable content!)

  5. says

    Jay, I’m totally with you in terms of social customer service volumes increasing because of the proliferation of mobile and because it’s just so easy to call out a brand directly. As far as the internet making us passive-agressive, I have to disagree with you on that one, unless people are hiding behind a pseudo-name. From my vantage point I’m not seeing people being “passive” at all about dissing a company publicly, unless by passive you simply mean keying a comment into a smartphone or laptop. I think it’s as simple as people wanting quick resolution to service failures. And going direct through Twitter or a Facebook post, in public view, can often lead to faster resolution than sending an email or navigating a convoluted IVR only to be placed on hold for half an hour. But I do agree that there’s less of an emotional investment through Social Media than when you confront someone face-to-face. And people, by their very nature tend to shy away from confrontation.

    In terms of measuring results of social customer service via survey-driven satisfaction indices? Again, I’m not so sure. Unless I’m misreading your suggestion. Volumes of social interactions about service are going to continue to increase, especially as this new channel becomes more mainstream. As you say, the idea that socializing service will result in fewer overall complaints is clearly a misconception. That assumption is actually news to me – never heard anyone position a benefit of social customer service in terms of reducing complaints. I agree that we shouldn’t be using traditional Call Center metrics for the social channel – cases handled, calls deflected, first call resolution, etc. These metrics may work in a one-to-one phone relationship, but in a one-to-many social relationship it’s more about sentiment, word-of-mouth, influencer impact, reputation management, social net promoter, etc. I don’t know that we should be surveying those who communicate with us through social channels. They’re already telling us what part of the operation requires fixing, how passionate they are, whether they’re positive or negative, and very often the location of the problem. We don’t need to interrupt them with survey questions in order to determine their satisfaction levels – survey fatigue is already all too rampant. Tools exist to classify and make sense of qualitative social feedback. Brands need to be respectful of their customers, listen to what they’re saying, and close the loop on corrective action. In so doing they’ll also be indirectly improving the customer experience.

    • says

      Great comment Mark, thank you. I know what you’re saying. They aren’t passive in that they aren’t hiding. To me, the passivity comes from just dashing off a tweet without taking the time to actually try to get something resolved.

      Interesting point about metrics and measurement. I just think about XBox 360, who surved socially assisted customers vs. traditionally assisted customers and found the socially assisted folks were far more satisfied. To me, that type of investigation proves the mettle of social service per se, more so than sentiment, social NPS et al, which speak to brand health more that service acumen. Not that those aren’t great measures – they are, and we recommend them all the time – but to me they aren’t customer service metrics necessarily.

  6. says

    “I Hate You (but not to your face)”. “If nothing else, social media and always-on Internet access has made us all passive aggressive.” I fully agree with these statements. I mean, if it wasn’t for the internet, how many of these people always ‘hating’ someone and calling them really creative rude phrase, would really do it in real life, directly to your face? On the internet, everyone is a hero, but I am of an opinion that one should not linger in the internet life and live a real one.

  7. Graciousstore says

    There are two reasons why customers complaints are up

    i. Marketers in the bid to “win” customers over or draw customers make unrealistic promises to them. Marketers promise to solve all their problems, so when marketers fail to fulfill their promises, customers complain.

    ii.Many people are disillusioned that they should always have the best of everything at litle or not cost, because the society has made them tobelieve they cn always get everything for free. So when businesses charge reason fees to cover expenses, customers complain

  8. Mohamed Ghoneim says

    Excellent article. I totally agree. I wanted to disagree and post negative comments about the article to support your argument but I couldn’t. Paradox :)

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