How to respond to complaints on social media
Limit yourself to one informative reply that shows empathy, then take it private (e.g. email, phone). Multiple public responses can hurt your brand and firm value.
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Complaints and complaint handling on social media have been on the rise for years.
From 2016 to 2018, Tweets of complaints and responses by companies increased by 250%.
But these are public conversations. Both potential customers and investors are likely to read them.
For example, one of the top two actions users take when exposed to a brand name on Twitter is to visit the brand’s page - where they could easily be exposed to a barrage of complaints.
And stock market investors closely monitor the social sentiment of companies. There are even websites set up to easily monitor the number of company complaints on Twitter (e.g. onholdwith.com).
So how should you answer complaints on social media when you’re being publicly observed?
Limit your responses to social media complaints to a single empathetic reply, then take it private
Impacted metrics: Customer satisfaction | Stock price | Brand attitudes
Channels: Complaint handling | Customer service | Social media
For: Mostly B2C
Research date: July 2021
Respond to a complaint on social media with an answer that:
Is quick, if possible within minutes or a few hours.
Offers an explanation and empathy (e.g. “I’m sorry your delivery is late, there was a power failure in our warehouse” - make sure to use “I” rather than “We”).
Takes the conversation private (e.g. “write me at email@example.com and I’ll help you right away”).
If the complainant doesn’t contact you privately and still tries to engage publicly:
Try to not respond if you’re on a platform that gives a big boost in visibility to posts you reply to (the complaint, in this case), such as Twitter or LinkedIn.
You can respond if you’re on a platform that doesn’t give a big boost to posts you reply to, such as Facebook, Google, or TripAdvisor.
If you’re handling many complaints, consider setting up a separate account to answer complaints (e.g. @AmazonHelp).
Previous research found that replying to complaints on social media reduces the negative effect of complaints and increases sales.
This study confirms this but finds that replying to complaints on some social media platforms, like Twitter, can backfire.
An analysis of Twitter complaints of hundreds of firms from 2014 to 2018 found that multiple complaint responses increase the visibility of complaints and therefore:
Reduce the perceived quality of a brand
Encourage others to complain as well, creating a ‘negativity spiral’
Hurt the company’s stock market performance
The negative effect is strongest when there are multiple public back and forth responses to a complaint, and minimized when companies limit themselves to a single response.
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🧠 Why it works
When a company replies to a complaint on Twitter it increases the complaint’s visibility because:
The complaint that was visible only to the complainant’s followers becomes visible to the company’s followers too
At each response, the complaint gets pushed to the top of the company’s page, the most prime display location
This turns the top and most visible portion of the company’s page into a complaint arena
This can seriously hurt our attitudes towards the company’s brand. Mainly because we are biased towards:
What we see first (complaints rather than positive company posts)
Negative information (so even if a response is excellent, the net effect is usually negative), due to our loss aversion
Information from other customers (the complaint) rather than information from companies (the response)
Investors’ decisions are influenced by factors that impact a company’s brand attitudes, including their overall sentiment on social media.
The study only analyzed Twitter data, which is generally the most widely used platform for complaints. While other social media platforms weren’t directly tested, we can make assumptions for this effect based on how their algorithms work.
There may be circumstances in which it’s worth publicly responding multiple times to a complaint (e.g. if it’s a topic that many customers are concerned about). However, the impact of this was not tested.
🏢 Companies using this
Most companies, as they should, have a quick reaction time to respond to complaints on social media.
Many customer service teams use single responses and then continue the conversation in private (e.g. phone, email), while others respond publicly multiple times.
In this study, only 12% of single responses gave an explanation or showed empathy, and therefore should be improved.
⚡ Steps to implement
Promptly respond to complaints on social media.
In your response:
Try to give an explanation of why the problem occurred
Show empathy towards the customer
Stick to a single response, and direct the customer to contact you privately.
Make it easy for customers to continue the conversation privately by offering multiple ways for them to get in touch, some may not want to pick up the phone.
Allow social media users to directly message you (i.e. keep your DMs open) so that they are less likely to post the complaint publicly.
If you are handling a large number of complaints, set up a separate support account to respond from, especially on Twitter.
🔍 Study type
Market observation (of Tweets and financial performance of 375 S&P 500 firms in 2014-2015 and Tweet complaint storms caused by product recalls of 107 firms in 2014-2018)
Golmohammadi, A., Havakhor, T., Gauri, D. K., & Comprix, J. (July 2021). Complaint Publicization in Social Media. Journal of Marketing.
Belk College of Business, University of North Carolina-Charlotte; Fox School of Business, Temple University; Sam M. Walton College of Business, University of Arkansas; and Martin J. Whitman School of Management, Syracuse University. United States
Remember: Because of the groundbreaking nature of this research, it could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.
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