Always Right

The Rise and Fall of the Customer Service Meltdown on Twitter

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images.

Always Right is Slate’s pop-up blog exploring customer service across industries, technologies, and human relationships.

In July, the right-wing pundit Ann Coulter did something that most people who actively use Twitter have been at least tempted to do, at some point in their tweeting careers: She lashed out at a company she felt had mistreated her. In Coulter’s case, it was Delta, which in the course of a last-minute reshuffling had evidently given someone else her assigned seat.

The lure of airing one’s customer service grievances to sympathetic followers can be hard to resist. An August survey by the social media management company Sprout Social found that nearly half of all respondents had used Twitter or another social platform to “call out” a business, and the rate was even higher among millennials. But Coulter’s tirade—which, by the way, did not go over well—raises the question: Is it ever really a good idea to use Twitter as a cudgel against a company?

The answer might depend on who you are and what you’re trying to achieve. But it also may be changing, as Twitter leans into its role in customer service disputes—and is even starting to use them as a selling point.

Before Twitter came along, your options for recourse when maltreated by a faceless corporation tended to be deeply unsatisfactory. You could unload in person on the nearest company representative, who likely had nothing to do with your problem and did nothing to deserve your wrath. You could write a letter, which would likely be handled coolly and impersonally by someone whose job it is to deal with crazy letter-writers like you. You could sit there silently and seethe.

By comparison, Twitter offers a form of redress that feels swift, public, and potent. It’s a chance to turn the tables on the big corporation by subjecting its actions to the court of social media opinion. More than one major airline has found itself in a full-on PR emergency after a customer’s outraged tweet went viral. (OK, mostly United Airlines—again and again and again.) As a result, major brands now employ social media rapid-response teams to handle disgruntled customers’ complaints in near-real time, which of course makes Twitter even more attractive as an outlet for your grievances. That same survey finds that social media kvetching is now the most popular channel for consumer complaints among millennials, surpassing in-person confrontations.

The risk, of course, is that you come out looking worse than the brand you’re trying to publicly humiliate. Few of us are at our best when our adrenaline is spiked by outrage; your grievance might feel to you like the equivalent of getting forcibly dragged off a plane for no good reason, but there’s no guarantee others will see it the same way. Even those not already inclined to loathe Ann Coulter found it hard to share her rage at the innocent fellow passenger whom Delta had re-assigned to Coulter’s spot. (Coulter posted a photo of the woman, calling her “dachshund-legged” and implying that she was an immigrant who takes American jobs.) Delta’s curt response to Coulter drew an outpouring of favorites and retweets that far exceeded those on her original complaints.

We’re not all Ann Coulter, obviously. Some of us can frame our complaints more gracefully, because we’re not solipsistic monsters who lack any sense of decency or proportion.

But can we really? That is, is it really possible to whine at a brand on Twitter without coming off as petty and entitled? The paradox of the platform, as a venue for customer service, is that your leverage over a company depends partly on how many followers you have. (When a normal person complains about a brand on Twitter, few are likely to see it; when a public figure does the same, it makes the news.) Yet the more followers you have, the more you have to lose by subjecting them to your feelings about an airline’s reseating practices, a disruption in your cable service, or your local department store’s return policy. And the more it can seem like you’re trying to leverage your online influence for special treatment, perhaps at the expense of other customers with inferior Klout scores. BuzzFeed gave voice to conventional wisdom when it implored celebrities way back in 2013 to “spare us your customer service complaint tweets.”

You don’t even have to be a household name to draw flak for your tweeting-at-brands habits: Gizmodo once ran a whole article about New York Times tech reporter Vindu Goel’s penchant for slagging Starbucks, dogging Delta, and criticizing Comcast. (Goel has about 18,000 followers.) Goel’s defense when questioned by the Gizmodo reporter was that his tweets weren’t simply selfish: “I pick broader problems that the company are having and amplify,” he said. In other words, he’s not mad at brands that cross him on his own behalf. He’s fighting for all of us!

Twitter itself has an interest in being perceived as a legitimate venue for customer service, because it makes the platform feel more essential both for average users and for companies (who are, in turn, potential Twitter advertisers). It offers guidelines for companies to respond more effectively to individual complaints, and last year it launched a series of new features intended to make the process more seamless—and, notably, less public. The features included a “deep link” option that allows brands to respond to complaints with a clickable invitation to take the conversation private, via direct message. The idea is to help brands quickly defuse the situation behind virtual closed doors, which ratchets down the stakes for both the company and the complainer. This year Twitter added more bells and whistles, such as the ability for customers to share their locations within direct messages and support for customer service bots.

Brands have apparently been listening, and Twitter says that approach has been working. While outbursts like Coulter’s still make occasional headlines, the company tells me public spats between customers and brands are “rare” these days, even as people are using Twitter for customer service more than ever before. In fact, Twitter says its own research shows that people who complain about a business on Twitter end up feeling more favorable to it afterward and more willing to pay for its services—provided the company responds quickly and resolves the issue. “When an airline responded to a customer’s tweet in less than six minutes, the customer was willing to pay almost $20 more for that airline in the future,” Twitter wrote in a blog post.

Given all this context, Coulter vs. Delta starts to look less like a typical example of a customer bashing a brand on Twitter and more like an outlier. Provided you have a legitimate gripe, are not a celebrity, and are willing to work it out via DM, you probably don’t have to feel guilty about tweeting your displeasure at a company after all. In some cases, as when my colleague tweeted at a recalcitrant health insurance provider that continued to bill her dead mother, Twitter achieves results that no other medium can. (Not to mention, the umbrage in that case was fully justified.)

And if you are a celebrity? Marshalling your online army probably isn’t worth the damage to your reputation unless you really are championing a cause worthy enough for your followers to rally around. But if you do succumb to temptation, you can console yourself afterward with the knowledge that you’ve shown a human side that the rest of us can secretly relate to, even as we deride you for it. Celebrities who act like jerks on Twitter: They’re just like us!