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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Social Media Complaints and Dysfunctional Consumers

By Dr. Todd Bacile | July 17, 2013

Social Media ComplaintsSynopsis: consumers who are choosing to use social media to complain to brands about legitimate issues are being met in some instances by fellow consumers exhibiting dysfunctional behavior, such as casting insults to a complainant while defending a brand. This is creating new challenges for brands from a customer service perspective.

Social Media Complaints

Social media are conduits for consumers to share complaints and seek resolution with brands. Even a brand’s most desired customers may post a complaint to a brand’s Facebook page, Twitter feed, or Google+ page. This is positive for firms attempting to resolve complaints, as research shows consumers who receive a complaint resolution have a higher probability of repeat business versus consumers who do not receive a resolution. For the brands that ignore or delete  social media complaints, watch out for the fall out!

Social media complaint resolution is an extension of traditional service support now entering virtual social media pages owned by brands. A company’s social media page is a virtual service setting, where consumers have expectations of a brand’s attentiveness to comments and complaints. Companies are realizing social media complaints must be addressed. Timeliness is a factor, too, as many consumers believe a firm should respond to social media complaints within an hour.

However, the presence of dysfunctional consumers is creating new challenges for firms in social media complaint resolution.

Dysfunctional Consumers

Dysfunctional consumers are individuals who exhibit some form of misbehavior that negatively affects other consumers, employees, or a brand. Examples include people in a service setting acting rudely, using vulgar or abusive language, making unreasonable demands, or even illegal acts such as theft or physical assault. Basically, any violation of acceptable norms of behavior in a business setting. Why should brands care? Dysfunctional consumers negatively affect other consumers’ satisfaction with a brand, future purchase intent, and brand loyalty.

Dysfunctional consumers are entering social media complaint and resolution scenarios. Occasionally, a dysfunctional consumer may interject in another consumer’s complaint posted to a brand. A typical example is a response from a dysfunctional consumer that defends a brand while insulting or degrading the complainant. Below is an actual screenshot (redacted for anonymity) from my research:

Social media complaint with dysfunctional consumer response

I interviewed a social media marketing company’s executive manager. He was asked how he deals with situations where “Consumer A” complains to the brand and “Consumer B” insults “Consumer A” in the thread. “We represent the brand and only reply to the complainant. We don’t do anything with other people who comment or respond, even when they border on insults. Unless it’s extremely offensive, we let consumer interactions work itself out.”

Stimulated by his response, I proceeded to collect data from several brands’ Facebook wall posts over several weeks. Thousands of consumer posted wall posts were content analyzed. Hundreds of posts were categorized as complaints. Several complaints had dysfunctional consumer responses that insulted the complainant, while defending the brand. Guess how many times a brand addressed a dysfunctional consumer insulting the complaining consumer? Zero!

Dysfunction and Complaints: A New Challenge

Findings from my research suggest brands are mishandling these complaining interactions. Brands are adapting traditional in-person complaint resolution tactics as if a dyadic conversation is occurring. Within the traditional complaint dyad there is a brand communicating with a single complainant, while all other consumers are uninvolved. However, social media complaints are one-to-many (or many-to-many) conversations instead of the one-to-one dyad brands are familiar with.

When dysfunctional consumer responses enter a complaint thread, companies should not only respond to the complaint in a favorable manner, but also address the dysfunctional response (i.e. ‘We appreciate your comments, but please maintain a polite atmosphere on our Facebook page’). This is how traditional in-person service settings operate. Service managers in in-person settings have a responsibility to maintain a peaceful atmosphere by attending to consumer misbehavior. Social media should be no different as consumers consider these interactions to be virtual service encounters in a brand’s environment.

Todd Bacile (@toddbacile) is a Marketing Professor at Loyola University New Orleans. Social Media Marketing Magazine ranks him as one of the Top 100 Marketing Professors on Twitter. The content posted here is a small portion of larger social media complaint studies he is currently conducting. Questions or comments regarding social media complaints are welcome.

Facebook sponsored results: new possibilities for social complaining

By Todd Bacile | October 3, 2012

Facebook Search and Sponsored Search

Guest speakers are always welcome in my undergraduate e-Marketing class at Florida State University. Ryan Cohn, the Vice President of Social/Digital Operations for Ron Sachs Communications, was kind enough to share his time and his knowledge of social media marketing topics last week. Ryan is a wealth of social information. Anyone who has the opportunity to talk social media, advertising, or PR with him is truly fortunate. Ryan discussed Facebook’s sponsored results with my students. After reflecting on his discussion I see a possible correlation with social complaining. Let me explain below.

Facebook Sponsored Results

Ryan brought up a terrific point: there is a key difference between a person using a Facebook search and a Google search. A Facebook search is used typically when a person is searching for a specific person, page, or brand. In contrast, a Google search is used typically to find a large number of results for competing or similar products or brands. The key difference is specificity: Facebook searchers are usually looking for something specific.

Search specificity creates new opportunities with Facebook’s sponsored results. Sponsored search results are different from sponsored ads or stories, each of which appear on the right side of Facebook’s page or within the newsfeed. Sponsored search results are positioned within the search query results drop-down menu. This is an ideal option to use for brands to offer suggestions of brand-extensions or complementary products. For example, the screen shot below illustrates how a Facebook search for “Mitt Romney” produces a sponsored search result for “Paul Ryan”. Note the sponsored Ryan result – and a sponsored result for Bingo Blitz – are actually the first search results appearing before Romney’s actual page.

Facebook Sponsored Search result

There is another strategy brands can use with Facebook sponsored results: display a competing product or brand. For example, a Facebook search for the dating service “OKCupid” displays a sponsored result for a competing dating service “Match.com”. The screen shot below illustrates the sponsored result appearing before OKCupid’s organic result (thanks to TechCrunch for this image). Situations such as OKCupid and Match.com is where sponsored results get interesting! Positioning a competing brand not only adjacent to a Facebook search of a specific brand, but also appearing before the organic search result may play a factor during episodes of social complaining.

What is Social Complaining?

Social media has created a phenomenon I refer to as social complaining. Consumers have been able to complain or post negative comments for several years on non-brand owned sites such as epinions.com. Now brand-owned media (i.e. a brand’s Facebook page) are targets for consumers posting negative comments. Consumers post social complaints to brands’ Facebook pages to warn others, notify the company to receive restitution, and/or embarrass a brand publicly. How prevalent is social complaining? eMarketer states 46% of consumers using social media for customer service are venting frustrations about poor experiences; and Facebook is the most popular social media site to post complaints.

How does this relate to sponsored search results? Put yourself in the shoes of an upset customer. For example, a faulty Maytag clothes washer is purchased by a consumer, who upon repeated attempts to fix the issue with Maytag is left with the broken appliance. The issue is unresolved. Years ago an online review site would be the destination for this upset customer; but, now this customer can go to Facebook to voice a complaint.

In our example above, the customer may type “Maytag” into Facebook’s search to locate the brand’s page to post a complaint. Surprisingly, the first result – a sponsored search result – could be a smart competitor such as Bosch, a rival brand of Maytag. An upset customer may not only visit and post a complaint on Maytag’s Facebook page, but also may choose to post the negative information on Bosch’s page due to the top of mind awareness generated by the sponsored result! Hey, if an upset consumer wants to embarrass a brand, what better way to do so than on a competitor’s page in front of the rival brand’s audience!

An additional subsequent scenario is brand-switching. The consumer’s clothes washer is broke and a negative review is made available to a competitor. A smart competing brand will engage the consumer and perhaps win them over as a new customer. This scenario also creates a public display of a brand that cares. There is a lot of positive PR to gain in this situation. Are you thinking this would never happen? Check out this story of a blogger who posted a complaint about her broken Maytag washer. Bosch, the competing brand, picked up on the complaint and actually gave the consumer a free washer. This occurred via a blog, but with evolving technology and brand-owned media being a fertile ground for social complaints, a similar situation may occur in the context of Facebook and its sponsored search results.

Todd Bacile is a marketing doctoral candidate and instructor for Electronic Marketing and Services Marketing in the College of Business at Florida State University. Social Media Marketing Magazine recently ranked him as one of the Top 100 Marketing Professors on Twitter. You can contact him on Twitter @toddbacile

Sears: An SST Queuing System Failure

By Todd Bacile | June 29, 2012

SearsThe economics of customer waiting is important to any service firm. For many consumers there is an economic cost associated with waiting: people value their time and waiting often is perceived as wasted time. Firms realize that waiting presents an initial negative perception of a consumer’s service encounter. Successful service managers attempt to offset the possibility of waiting by forecasting demand and managing capacity. However, nobody is perfect and waiting for service is a fact of life for most consumers.

Firms manage waiting by using queuing systems. Multiple forms of queue systems exist, such as waiting in a single file line at a bank, waiting in your choice of multiple lines at a grocery store, or choosing a number at a deli counter. An alternative queue management system is to use self-service technology (SST). These are often seen as stand alone kiosks that customers use to enter information to complete a transaction.

Really successful companies take waiting a step further and attempt to conceal the wait. The word “conceal” can be associated with a negative connotation, but in this sense I am using “conceal” in a positive way. Firms that conceal a wait do so in a manner that a customer is entertained, involved, or distracted by another activity so as to not notice how long they are waiting. A classic example is Disney’s theme parks: while patrons wait in long lines at the theme park, waiting customers watch animated characters and displays that are strategically positioned around those waiting in lines. In this manner, waiting is not lost time. Customers have something to focus on during their wait.

Sears retail stores uses a queuing system along with a strategy to conceal a wait, branded as Ready in 5 Guaranteed. The system is easy to use and a great idea — if Sears would not have set an initial expectation that it was not able to meet. You see, Sears has a large sign prominently displayed next to its kiosk (and also on its website) stating that 100% of its service encounters are completed within 5 minutes when using the system. A customer enters their purchase information into the kiosk, which then notifies warehouse workers to bring the appliance up front to the customer. Al the while, a large screen TV displays a running timer next to the customer’s name.

Sears has a great idea — and it worked initially. The person I brought with me discussed for a few minutes how wonderful the system is — and we were entertained / distracted from focusing on the wasted time spent waiting. This is a novel way for the customer to see a light at the end of the tunnel. It didn’t quite work out that way, though. Sears stopped the counter just shy of 5 minutes and then re-started a new counter from 0:00. Watch the 1-minute video to view my experience. Sears: you have the right idea, but you need to work on front-line employees correctly executing your strategy.

Todd Bacile is a marketing doctoral candidate and instructor for Electronic Marketing and Services Marketing in the College of Business at Florida State University. Please visit his website for more information regarding his classes and research within e-Marketing and services marketing topics. You can contact him on Twitter @toddbacile