Does venting consumer outrage on Twitter actually work?

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Sept. 1 2009 5:47 PM

Tweeting Avengers

Does venting consumer outrage on Twitter actually work?

Comcast Must Die is dead. Two years ago, NPR host and Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield founded the site in a fit of exasperation with his (and everyone else's) least favorite cable company. As Garfield recounts in his new book, The Chaos Scenario, the impetus was relatively ordinary—in 2007, Garfield ordered Comcast's "Triple Play" bundle of phone, cable, and Internet plans and endured more than a month of customer-service hell trying to get everything installed. He posted a short rant about his travails on his AdAge.com blog—headline, "COMCAST MUST DIE: Seeking Ideas for a Consumer Jihad"—and a reader suggested he reserve the domain ComcastMustDie.com.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

It was an instant phenomenon: Over the next few months, the site attracted thousands of visitors, lots of press coverage, and, most surprisingly, Comcast's ear. The company began responding to complaints posted on the site. People who hadn't been able to get through to Comcast on the phone were suddenly getting personal calls from executives eager to help them resolve what had gone wrong. Now Garfield and his Comcast-hating partners are declaring victory; they've transformed Comcast Must Die into a more general-purpose gripesheet, Customer-Circus.com. Comcast, Garfield writes, is still "a vast, greedy, blundering corporate colossus"—but at least it's no longer tone deaf, and that's a start.

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This is an astonishing reversal. To be sure, Comcast is still reviled—Consumerist's readers recently voted it the country's second-worst company. (AIG beat it out to take the blog's coveted Golden Poo award.) But as Garfield documents, Comcast has taken a number of positive steps to address complaints, including setting up a team to respond quickly to online grumbling about the firm. If you grouse about Comcast on a blog or Twitter, there's now a good chance the company will seek you out and try to fix your problem.

It's not just Comcast. This week, Dooce.com's Heather Armstrong posted a hilarious, outrageous account of the difficulties she faced in trying to fix a new $1,300 Maytag washing machine. Finally, during one of her many long conversations with customer service, she floated the nuclear option: "And here's where I say, do you know what Twitter is?" she wrote. "Because I have over a million followers on Twitter. If I say something about my terrible experience on Twitter do you think someone will help me?" The customer-service agent assured her that it wouldn't help; Armstrong tweeted anyway—"DO NOT EVER BUY A MAYTAG"—and by the next day, a Maytag executive was overnighting the parts she needed to get her washer fixed. Another company, Bosch, did one better: It offered Armstrong a free washer and dryer, which the blogger re-directed to a local homeless shelter.

There's an obvious lesson here: The Web is a wronged customer's best friend. Airlines, cable companies, large retailers, restaurants and all sorts of other firms now maintain a presence on Twitter, Yelp, and other feedback sites, watching out for people with complaints. But how should you go about griping? And will you get any real help? After all, Garfield is a media personality, and Armstrong is one of the Web's most popular bloggers. They've got huge megaphones, and companies have an incentive to listen to them. What about you, with your 20 Twitter followers and 50 Facebook friends? Can you get satisfaction online?

It depends—on which company you're complaining about, how loudly you complain, and perhaps also who you are. When I polled people on Twitter this week, I found lots of folks who've gotten a response from companies they've griped about online. Several had stories about Comcast—they received personal responses from company reps, and in some cases got extraordinary service. The same thing happens on Yelp all the time; people post negative reviews about local businesses, and the owner will call back offering to make it right. Garfield points out that it's in the companies' interest to grease these squeaky wheels; it doesn't cost firms very much to monitor online conversations, and when they make it right, the payoff can be immense. "Comcast learned that they could immediately convert people," Garfield says. "When they flew into Comcast Must Die and took care of people, those people became instant converts—you can turn your enemy into an evangelist in a five-minute phone call."