Back in the dark ages, if customers were unhappy with the way they were treated by a business, they would pick up the phone to ring the manager or send an angry letter via the post office. Then came the Internet and online comment forms and tersely worded e-mail responses. But that too is starting to feel old school, at least among tech-savvy consumers who've learned that the quickest, easiest, surest way to have their complaint not only heard but also resolved is to broadcast it on Twitter.
I should know. Back in May, my Hotmail account was hacked, and spam was forwarded to my contact list, which led to my getting officially locked out of my inbox. I did as directed by the Microsoft-owned Hotmail: I e-mailed its customer-service department and received, as promised, an automated response within 24 hours letting me know the problem was being looked into. Then nothing. For three days. So I vented my frustration on Twitter and tagged the message with "@Microsoft" so that anyone searching for tweets about the company would see it. Within 34 minutes, the 75-hour silence was broken. A Hotmail program manager contacted me via Facebook. Half an hour later, I was logged into my inbox.
I quickly discovered that my Twitter success story was not unique. Ask a few friends or their kids and you'll find plenty of consumers who have put their complaints in the Twitter express lane.
Customer-service experts will tell you it's the instant public humiliation that sets Twitter grievances apart. (You may remember filmmaker Kevin Smith's Twitter tantrum in February, after Southwest Airlines booted him from a flight allegedly for being too overweight to fit in a single seat.) "Until now, most customer service has been in a black hole of obscurity," says Pete Blackshaw, an executive at Nielsen Online Strategic Services and the author of Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000. "Now you just spend a few minutes searching tweets to see who's mad and then how they were dealt with." Blackshaw says many of the companies he advises have started devoting resources to social-media monitors, who aim to respond to an angry tweet within 60 minutes.
But there is a potential downside to airing your grievance on Twitter. "One of three things can happen," says George Pring, a law professor at the University of Denver. "The company can ignore it completely, say 'Gee, that's a good idea let's fix it' or think 'Let's sue them they slandered or defamed us.'" Pring has studied these suits, which companies almost never win, and helped coin an acronym for them: SLAPP, short for "strategic lawsuits against public participation."
Only after I started working on this article did I discover there's a bill before Congress to create a federal ban on SLAPPs. Currently, a mere 26 states shield consumers from them. So in hindsight, I sure am glad Microsoft went with option B.