Consumers are letting their fingers do the talking, tweeting tales of bad customer service – a huge challenge for businesses, writes CONOR POPE
SAYING NEGATIVE things about noodles can be a dangerous business. A Taiwanese blogger was recently jailed after she posted a review of a local restaurant in which she complained about cockroaches scuttling across the floor and the dried noodles being a bit too salty.
An enraged restaurant owner sued her and while the court had no problem with the cockroach complaint, it ruled that her description of the food was unfair as she’d only sampled a single dish so was unqualified to make such a sweeping statement. It ordered her to pay €5,000 by way of compensation in addition to her 30-day jail term.
If the courts in this part of the world were as tough on users of social media, our jails would be over-run with people sent down for using blogs, discussion forums, Facebook and Twitter to lambaste service providers who let them down. The easiest way to spread your rage is Twitter.
According to a UK study published earlier this month people are more likely to complain about companies on Twitter than praise them, with the vast majority of tweets posted in relation to customer service being critical.
Software company TOA Technologies reported that more than 80 per cent of customer service related tweets were from people complaining.
As the influence of social media grows, the reach of these complaints will be extended leaving many companies wondering what they can do to either harness the power of the (comparatively) new media for their benefit or at least stop it doing too much harm.
“It may not be a big surprise that people tweet when they are unhappy about customer service but what is astonishing is the expansive network effect of these tweets,” says Yuval Brisker, chief executive of TOA Technologies. “A key goal of every service-based company should be to keep their name off Twitter.”
The keep-us-off-Twitter at all costs approach is not one which would be endorsed by KLM. Instead the airline is going to remarkable lengths to cater for the social media demands of its passengers.
At a recent air transport summit in Brussels, a spokesman for KLM said it employed 23 dedicated social media staff at Schipol airport to address the tweets and Facebook postings of customers. This Twitter army monitor all posts and respond where necessary – sometimes going to, frankly, stalker-like lengths to reach tweeting passengers. One tweeted that he was flying to a social media conference so KLM tracked him down and gave him a ticket to The Social Network. Another tweeted about flying with the airline and was rewarded with a €15 apps voucher handed to him in person by airline staff.
“People will now choose their brand because of social media, which can be a competitive advantage. It’s a new way of advertising,” KLM chief executive officer Peter Hartman told the conference.
There are few people who know as much about the potential and the pitfalls of social media as Damien Mulley. He has been operating both as a consultant and as a user for longer than almost anyone in the country.
“There are a huge amount of companies trying to get involved. Social media is one of the big buzz words but whether companies are using it in a positive and active way is another question. Those who just post links to press releases are not going to make an impact,” he says.
“If you are going to set up a Twitter account then people are going to expect you to be available all the time,” Mulley adds. He says companies who are not prepared to invest properly may be as well off not bothering. “I am the biggest evangelist for social media and my company is built around it but you have to know the space and you have to work at it and you have to have something interesting to say. Some companies get it and they are updating and interacting.”
Mulley points to companies such as Vodafone, Eircom, Meteor and UPC which have active Twitter or Facebook accounts and while they are regularly hammered by users “they are still there taking it on the chin”.
Last week a colleague posted a complaint about UPC on Twitter. She had her phone, broadband and TV with the company and wanted to drop the latter. The customer help desk said her contract did not expire until September and she would have to pay €100 if she broke it. She tweeted that as a result of the company’s intransigence she would be taking all her business elsewhere come September. Within minutes those manning the UPC Twitter feed were in touch to say they would see what they could do about sorting it out.
UPC spokeswoman Anna Maria Barry says the company has just put its “toe in the water” but says it is eager to embrace social media. It has employed two people to look after its accounts and monitors Twitter, Facebook and internet bulletin boards to track customer sentiment. “We do need to be involved and to know what people are saying. It could be good but if it is not so good than we can react and try and change things. It is a very quick medium, even faster than broadcast and we have to be on the ball because we are a digital media company.”
It is estimated that 385,000 people in Ireland over 15 have a Twitter account, about 80,000 of whom are thought to be active daily users.
We conducted our own survey last week and asked if people were more inclined towards praising or kicking companies on the network. We assumed that the results would mirror the findings of the TOA survey but we were wrong. We received close to 200 responses in 12 hours with those inclined towards giving out in the minority. Only 30 per cent said they used it to moan, 34 per cent said they were more likely to praise while 38 per cent said there was a pretty even spilt.
One sector that is doing well with social media is food-related businesses. The Cliff House Hotel in Waterford, Murphy’s Ice Cream in Kerry and Dublin and Mulligan’s gastropub in Stoneybatter, Dublin, to name just three all have engaging and active Twitter feeds.
Then there is Harry’s Bar in Inisowen, Co Donegal. Co-owner Donal Doherty was a reluctant convert to social media but has come full circle in little over a year. He set up the restaurant’s Facebook page in April of last year but unlike many people he instantly got the concept. “We try not to sell to people but simply tell our story in an interesting way.” The response was immediate and massive and has led to a significant boost in trade. Twitter is his new love. He has been using it for just six months but is, by his own definition, “addicted”.
“Now hardly a day goes by that we don’t have someone in the restaurant because of Twitter and they are tweeting from the restaurant, telling all their followers where they are.
“We look after all our customers but when you see someone who is tweeting then you are aware that they are talking about their experience to a much wider audience. Last week Alan Carr – who has one million followers on Twitter – was in.” He loved it, and a person with that many followers can have a lot of influence on a small restaurant like Harry’s.