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How to handle customer complaints on Twitter

From airlines, to hotels, to retail chains, service providers are increasingly using Twitter as a platform for managing customer complaints and service problems.

But a recent study of service responses on Twitter found that not all firms are getting this crucial element of customer service right – and that certain service responses could even be making things worse for customers.

Tweet button on keyboard.

Customer service on Twitter

When customer service is done well on Twitter, it’s an excellent way for a company to show their ability to solve problems and to make life easy for their customers. A well-handled complaint on a public platform like Twitter can actually make a company look good and show the human side of a brand, as these amusing examples demonstrate. Paradoxically, a well-handled complaint can sometimes be a marketing opportunity in disguise.

New research shows that, overall, Twitter is an effective platform for many organizations to deal with customer complaints. In a recent study by academics at the University of Colorado and Webster University, some 85 percent of customers were satisfied with the customer service responses of Twitter agents. This is compared with 62 percent who were satisfied with frontline contacts, and just 11 percent who were satisfied with off-site, traditional customer service agents.

Responding to complaints on Twitter

For a growing number of service industries, Twitter is a very effective platform for supporting customers. But research shows that while some responses from Twitter agents can help, certain responses can make the situation worse for customers.

The research gives some clear indications about best practice when handling complaints on Twitter, and where customer service managers should focus their resources to maximize customer satisfaction. Here are three of the key findings.

1. Giving customers further instruction has a negative effect

Man at crossroads

The researchers found that when Twitter agents provide further directions that require customers to act to resolve their issues, customer frustration remained the same or worsened in 74 percent of cases.

Getting further directions made only 26 percent of the complaining customers feel relieved, suggesting that the only effective response is problem-solving on the part of the agent.

A majority of customers – 78 percent – felt better after the Twitter agent took action to solve the problem.

2. Making customers wait isn’t necessarily a problem

Image: waiting customers

The study showed that waiting does not necessarily have a negative effect on customer emotion and satisfaction. This finding goes against received wisdom in the industry, and articles by Social Media Examiner and Hootsuite which emphasize the importance of response time.

According to research on the psychology of waiting, the waiting process is less anxious than the out-of-waiting process. This means that when social media agents are directing the problem to other departments or reporting to managers, customers at least feel like their problems are in the process of being handled, even though they have not yet been solved.

However, if the agent only provides further directions such as phone numbers or web links, customers may perceive that they are still at the out-of-process stage, causing a negative effect on customer satisfaction with the recovery process.

3. The severity of the service failure makes a difference

Image: service failure

Although the study showed that recovery speed should always not be the top priority, it did show that slow recovery speed can make things worse in the case of severe service failures.

Severe failures negatively influence customer emotion and customer satisfaction. In cases of a serious service failure, low recovery speed further increases the negative effect on customer satisfaction.

What are the implications?

One key implication is that to improve the effectiveness of service recovery processes, service providers need to empower their social media agents with the ability to provide real time problem remedies that do not require customers take further action. It was clear in the study that customers did not like receiving further instructions, meaning that this responsibility must lie with empowered social media agents.

Another implication is that customer service managers should reassess the weight that that place on speed. Although recovery speed is important in the case of severe service failures, for more minor service issues, a longer recovery time did not affect customer emotions and satisfaction.

Finally, the research affirms the overall benefits of Twitter as a useful platform for dealing with complaints, as well as flagging up the need for improvements for traditional, off-site customer service agents.

Read the research ▶

Read more! “To tweet or not to tweet? Exploring the effectiveness of service recovery strategies using social media” is published in International Journal of Operations & Production Management

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