There’s a lot of debate around social networking and the impact it can have on an organisation’s customer service reputation. Articles range from those claiming social media is vital to your business and the best route to get complaints resolved  to research reporting that Twitter users judge only 36% of tweets as worth reading .
With this range of opinion, how can business executives decide whether social media is something that really matters when it comes to prioritising budgets for complaint management?
Gather the facts, not the anecdotes
Complaints management is an area where it’s easy for everyone to have an opinion on “the right way” to sort out problems. It could be argued that only competitive team sports produces a greater number of ‘armchair generals’ who have all the right answers. As complaints management can’t be blamed on the referee’s need to visit an optician, it’s important for business leaders to understand where to look for evidence in making the right decisions.
Extreme and isolated examples of individual complainants are a powerful attractor and all too frequently presented as representative of wider problems. In reality, this can draw resources away from tackling real, systemic problems affecting the greatest number of customers.
There’s been a lot of research carried out into complainant behaviour. I’m going to look at two aspects of this research which I think matter most in the context of the perceived impact of social media:
- What are dissatisfied customers likely to do; and
- Would social media increase the impact of complaints?
1. What are dissatisfied customers likely to do?
Each individual’s decision to complain is dependent upon their personal preferences and ‘norms’ around complaining, amongst other factors. For some, their motivation can include the “societal benefit” of a complaint – i.e. preventing others from undergoing the same service failure. Richens  identified these personal behavioural factors related to complainant decision making.
Solvang’s study  identified complainants as having the greatest propensity to engage in negative word of mouth as a course of action.
For some people, complaining to prevent other suffering the same experience is motivation enough and we also know that they're more likely to engage in negative word of mouth. That's a potentially powerful combination.
2. Will social media increase the impact of complaints?
Against this background, we need to consider what social media might contribute to the situation. Bachelor's article  is a good illustration, going so far as to offer hints and tips on how to make sure complainants’ social media comments get maximum coverage! She advocates tweeting all your followers and including the company as one effective method, as well as highlighting journalists who follow the company.
As a journalist, she’s in a good position to know!
But will the complainant's tweet be one of the 36% considered worth reading or disappear into the electronic blue yonder unnoticed? This is where managers need to apply some good risk assessment practices to assess the likely impact. Consider the demographics of your customer base, your shareholders and any other parties influencing your business. Do they follow Twitter and will they notice?
However, if mainstream news picks up on a complaint and a twittering journalist makes it a front page news story, how does this affect your business? The individual complainant may now have become a potential public relations hand grenade.
Manage the channel or manage the complaint?
Before committing yourself to a social media complaints strategy in response to this news, it's more significant to ask yourself how you handle a complaint first. What is more significant in responding to a complaint could be (a) whether your organisation was at fault and (b) what you did, or did not do about dealing with it.
it is more likely to be the organisation’s response (or lack of) to a failure that causes dissatisfaction
Whether it’s fully social media enabled or not, having a robust, open and easy to access complaints process that responds swiftly and appropriately will make sure you address the underlying issue.
We also know from Davidow  that organizational effectiveness in complaint handling has a significant impact on reducing negative word of mouth. Put simply, how well the organisation handles the complaint can reduce the likelihood of complainants expressing their dissatisfaction publicly.
If you’ve got this right, you may find your tweeting complainant publicising your exceptional complaint handling. Opinion and information sharing tweets featured as higher scoring categories for readability , so the complainant’s tweet about your excellent complaint experience is likely to have some social media influence to balance any negative word of mouth reactions.
Managerial action points
How does this discussion help managerial decision making about social media in complaints management?
My suggestions are threefold:
- The risk of a dissatisfied customer complaining through social media is very real and cannot be ignored. Negative word of mouth is a known feature of complainant behaviour. You can’t dismiss it; so you need to assess the risk and impacts.
- Before you commit to a social strategy for handling complaints, make sure you’ve fixed the basics first. You need an effective, open, welcoming complaint process that is focused on resolving the problems. Then you can consider how social media features as a channel for open communication.
- Responding well to complaints has been shown to reduce negative word of mouth. The way you handle the complaint is going to dictate the content of your customer's tweets - as either positive about recovery or adding further weight to their negative word of mouth.
The evidence tells us we can’t ignore social media. It's a modern incarnation of word of mouth (positive or negative). But if you have a great social media strategy without an effective complaint resolution process?
Well that’s just asking for trouble.
- Bachelor, L., 2012. Complain on Twitter for an instant response. The Guardian, pp.1–3. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk.
- André, P., Bernstein, M.S. & Luther, K., 2012. Who Gives A Tweet? Evaluating Microblog Content Value. CSCW 2012. Seattle, WA, USA, pp. 1–4.
- Richins, M.L., 1982. An Investigation of Consumers' Attitudes Toward Complaining. Advances in Consumer Research, 9, pp.502–556.
- Solvang, B.K., 2008. Customer protest: Exit, voice or negative word of mouth. International Journal of Business Science and Applied Management, 3(1), pp.1–19.
- Feinberg, R.A. et al., 1990. Myth and reality in customer service: Good and bad service sometimes leads to repurchase. Journal of Consumer Satisfaction, Dissatisfaction and Complaining Behaviour, 3, pp.112–114.
- Davidow, M., 2003. Organizational responses to customer complaints: What works and what doesn't. Journal of Service Research, 5(3), p.225.