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."

Yet I noticed one not-so-surprising trend: People with more clout seem to get better service. One Twitterer with fewer than 20 followers told me that though he's tweeted about Comcast frequently, the company has responded only to tell him its customer-service phone number. Another—with about 300 followers—told a better story: When she complained about a service problem, Comcast made special arrangements for a refund. And Glenn Fleishman, a tech journalist with more than 1,600 followers, got the best deal of all. Fleishman had signed a Comcast VoIP contract that—buried in extremely fine print—imposed a 75 percent early-cancellation fee, which amounted to about $1,300. He got nowhere on the phone and through e-mail, even when he threatened to call his state attorney general's complaints office. So he began to tweet about the bad deal and quickly got a call from an executive in the escalation department, who offered to waive the fee. (Fleishman didn't tell the company that he was a journalist and never threatened to write about the company, but his details are pretty easy to find online.)

Fleishman and Armstrong's stories illustrate the other interesting fact about companies' newfound interest in online complaints—the Web doesn't seem to have improved ordinary, phone-based customer service. If you call up Comcast, Maytag, or some other company, you'll still find lots of recalcitrant customer-service reps. The companies seem to notice something's gone wrong only after you broadcast your complaint to the world. That's why you'd be a fool not to reach for your keyboard when a company gives you the run-around.

That's not how it should work; in a perfect world, firms would beef up their front-line staff to deal with complaints. But it does suggest a way to approach customer service, as Consumerist points out: First, exhaust all normal methods (phone, e-mail, etc.) Then sign up to Twitter (it's best if you can get your friends to follow you), find out where the company in question tweets, and squeal to your heart's content, making sure to add @companyname to your posts. If you're dealing with a small company—especially a local restaurant or retailer—you might find better luck on Yelp, which also has the advantage of letting you tell your full story. Be specific, detailing all that went wrong, but remember to be professional, too. Don't tell a company to go to hell without at least saying why.

It is possible to take your Twitter gripes too far. The Web gives you a lot of power, and you'll be doing a disservice to your fellow unhappy consumers if you get greedy. For instance, see this woman who wrote in to Consumerist recently: She and her husband spent three nights at a Comfort Inn in Utah. On the third day, the hotel didn't thoroughly clean her room. The woman called the manager and was given immediate service—a maid came by to clean the room, and the manager offered to give the couple a discount. But the woman insisted on taking things further. She contacted the company's corporate office, which sent her back a sincere apology letter. Still not satisfied, the woman turned to Twitter—and soon got a call back from a corporate representative who offered a coupon for a free night's stay. As many commenters pointed out, she went too far; given appropriate service, she should have said thank you and backed down.

Another thing: Just because Comcast got religion doesn't mean every company will listen to your beefs. Several Twitterers told me that their online rants have been ignored. The tech blogger Om Malik—843,000 followers—had a bad experience with United Airlines recently and made his displeasure known: "Dear United the reason you are in fiscal trouble is because you can't tell your head from your butt. Etix shouldn't take 55 min checkin," he wrote, among several other critical posts. This week I e-mailed him to ask if United had reached out to him. "No they never did," he replied. "Who cares. Not traveling on united ever again."

Garfield has a funny story about this, too. Recently he decided to switch from Comcast to DirecTV in order to watch football. And of course he had trouble. "I've been on the phone with DirecTV for hours and hours, at least 11 different people—and I can't sign up, I can't do it," he says. "So I blogged it and I tweeted. Nothing. The only thing I got was a call from Comcast. They said, 'What, you're gonna leave us?' "

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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