Social Media Complaints: An Example of the Tip of the Iceberg Effect

By Todd Bacile, Ph.D. | July 31, 2014

Tip of the Iceberg EffectSocial media complaints are a new challenge to firms. The connected-consumer now has a platform to efficiently disseminate an unfavorable message about a company or its products to the masses.

Social media complaints produce what I refer to as the Tip of the Iceberg Effect. You may be wondering, ‘What is this effect?’ An example which happened to me this week will nicely illustrate it.

Poor Customer Service

To briefly summarize, I had a bad experience with a car I rented from Enterprise and National Car Rental. Soon after driving away with my rental car I discovered an issue. It reeked. A heavy smoker had used the vehicle. Plus, there was a sticky substance on the steering wheel. It should have been cleaned better. The time was 1 AM and with small children in the car I decided to resolve the issue in the morning.

A summary of the situation the next morning: phone support was great. They said I could swap the vehicle at any location. No need to go back 45 minutes to the airport where I picked it up. I went to a closer Enterprise location, where a rep agreed to swap the vehicle (“we have plenty of cars for you to choose”). However, his computer told him he couldn’t swap vehicles due to a technicality.

I called phone support back, who then contacted the location’s rep five minutes later to make them swap the vehicle. Now another rep at the location insisted they had no vehicles to swap. “All of our vehicles are reserved,” he said proudly. I felt bamboozled.

I referred to Enterprise’s policy to request a car be brought to my location; and was told that would not be possible. Phone support gave me two choices: drive 10 miles to another location to swap my full size car for a compact or drive back to the airport to **try** to get another vehicle. Like I was trying at that moment with no success. Right.

In the end my wife spent three hours cleaning the smelly, sticky vehicle. Hooray, we’re on vacation!

Social Media Complaints

As a consumer who spent a lot of money, only to receive poor service, I was upset and disappointed. In my opinion, the company was not willing to resolve the issue for me in a fair manner. Thus, I had experienced a service failure. Left without another option, I took my complaint to social media to tell others.

A single tweet to my followers, as well as the Twitter handles of the two rental companies I was having an issue with started the ball rolling. At the time I posted my tweet I had about 1,300 followers. That is 1,300 people who may potentially read about my poor service encounter in their timelines.

Would they all read it? No chance. But, some would. And some did.

My single complaint tweet soon produced 21 retweets and/or modified retweets. A quick calculation of the total number of followers of these 21 people: 13,263. That is 13,263 people who potentially would be exposed to my complaint in their Twitter timelines. There were a few other responses or retweets of responses from various people, which added to the overall reach with an additional 4,252 followers exposed to the tweet.

Altogether, 17,515 people were exposed to some of the details associated with my poor service encounter. That’s a lot. What can I say, other than I have a certain degree of “Klout“.

Tip of the Iceberg Effect

A single complaint tweeted and then retweeted by 21 people. In sheer numbers of consumers in a target market, that is a very small number. However, there was an underlying effect of word-of-mouth communication being disseminated. My complaint and the 21 retweets resulted in a possible audience of up to 17,500+ consumers.

This illustration resembles the physical properties of an iceberg, which often has 90% or more of its structure residing underwater. Moreover, when you view an iceberg peeking out of the water, you are only seeing a small portion of it. Less noticeable to plain sight is a larger structure quietly lurking below.

Tip of the Iceberg EffectSocial media complaints also exhibit characteristics of an iceberg. If a company sees a single complaint and a small number of follow-up social actions by others — retweets, shares, likes, comments, or +1’s — what is noticeable in plain sight may seem like a small number of consumers. However, just as the majority of an iceberg is out of plain sight, the number of followers who are exposed to these follow-up social actions may be immense.

This is word-of-mouth 2.0.

Proactive and Reactive Strategies

The best strategy to avoid social media’s tip of the iceberg effect is to proactively resolve a problem. This means correcting a problem when a consumer first voices before wide exposure. How? Perform a service right the first time, make it easy for consumers to complain, and make the recovery a hassle free experience. If a product can’t be replaced, there are other options (e.g., sincere apologies, showing genuine empathy, or offering a future benefit as compensation).

However, not all companies have the resources to proactively correct a service failure. If not, a reactive strategy may be necessary. A resolution can still be completed to satisfy a complainant, but now the world is exposed to poor service details.

In my case, the rental company chose the reactive route. However, by the time it reached out to me via social media — and four days later via a telephone call to my phone — the retweets and the audience exposure was already in motion. The delay in a resolution also gave me time to become more upset.

The takeaway: fix problems as soon as they occur. Proactive strategies will save your business a lot of negative word-of-mouth. If you must use a reactive strategy to resolve a complaint, try to resolve the issue quickly. Use tools such as Radian6 to quickly find complaints and then use real-time engagement to attempt a resolution. However, negative word-of-mouth has already begun: the number of consumers exposed to a complaint — and the size of the proverbial iceberg — is growing. It is still worth your time to try to resolve the issue to minimize the iceberg.

Dr. Todd Bacile (@toddbacile) is a marketing professor at Loyola University New Orleans, a marketing consultant, and a professional speaker with presentations focusing on social media marketing, search engine marketing, online complaints, and online reputation management at corporate and industry conferences. He holds a Ph.D. in marketing from Florida State University. Social Media Marketing Magazine ranks him as one of the Top 100 Marketing Professors on Twitter. Have a question or comment? Post it here and you will receive a response.

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3 thoughts on “Social Media Complaints: An Example of the Tip of the Iceberg Effect

  1. This is really interesting, Todd, thanks for sharing your experience. I think about the power social media outlets have to hurt or help a business and businesses should be very careful when they have twitter and facebook profiles, because as you have proven here, it just takes ONE unhappy customer to reach potentially THOUSANDS of possible customers with good or bad reviews. I myself, use this avenue when I felt I’ve been given poor service. Word of mouth works both positively and negatively!

    Like

    • Thanks for the comment, Christy. The funny thing is that this event and subsequent complaint episode occurred several weeks back, yet here we are still discussing it! You illustrate how people will stumble upon details of a social media complaint long after the original exchange occurred. So, social not only empowers consumers to share a message with the masses, but also preserves a message, which leads to even more exposure, reach, and engagement. Thanks for your comments. I hope you come back soon!

      Like

  2. Pingback: Todd Bacile's Marketing Blog | Time: A Business Owner’s Best Weapon Against Negative Yelp Reviews

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