Service Failure: How Social Media Changes Complainants’ Balance of Power

5 min read · 9 years ago


There have now been at least two decades of “best practice” advice on how businesses must understand the importance of good customer service.

Research into consumer and complainant behaviour goes back to studies such as Day and Landon’s (1977) classification of customer responses when faced with poor service. This research is still valid today, but in the new context of social media.

In the 21st century, dissatisfied customers can ensure their complaint experience is very public. The age of Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook radically shifts the balance of power towards the customer, giving new routes to publicise dissatisfaction with poor performance that previously remained a private and personal frustration.

Yet some organisations seem to insist on failing to learn the long proven lessons of giving good customer service, delivering experiences that are – at best – sloppy.

It may be that the finance director considers the pipeline of new customers delivering revenue into the sales department outweighs the customer churn and defection in service delivery. However, this is not a business strategy likely to produce long-term growth or award winning success.

Social media has shifted the balance of power to the complaining consumer, now capable of launching public reputational damage on a scale never before available.

A case study example of a 21st century service failure

This blog illustrates this point with a current customer experience case study.  It illustrates a truly spectacular example of compound service failure by a UK broadband service provider. Their task was a simple one – deliver the service you’ve promised to a new customer who’s switching from a different provider. Bread and butter stuff for a utility provider.

Having eagerly taken the customer’s money, the service experience has been:

  • A promise (1st June) of a 7-10 day installation deadline.
  • A failure to deliver to this deadline, with the customer having to chase up two weeks later.
  • A customer service advisor stating the original delivery date “should never have been promised”, with the actual date not being for another two weeks (now 26th June, nearly a month after service order).
  • A chase-up phone call on the 25th June by the customer resulting in an assurance that everything would be “ready to use” tomorrow, as promised.
  • On installation day, an engineer fits the phone line and reveals that essential equipment should have been posted to the customer in advance. No mention of this was made in the ‘ready to go’ phone call previously held, but the service cannot go live until it arrives.
  • A second installation engineer unexpectedly arrives the following day to “sort out your installation”. A chase up call when the service still fails to work reveals this second engineer has actually switched the service to a completely new number.
  • Phone calls now start being received from a fax machine. It transpires the second engineer installed somebody else’s fax line at entirely the wrong address, replacing the internet line which was – in fact – working (but without a router).
  • The company concerned is equally confused, believes the customer has ordered two lines and has no record of the actual line installed by the second engineer.  They have to speak to the engineer in person to find out what he’s done and why and promise to have the service working within two days.

The initial complaint call was mishandled beautifully in itself, with the contact centre advisor having “no supervisor available.”  A callback informed the customer that “nothing that can be done to speed this up” before asking whether or not the customer was happy with the service they’d provided.

Breathtaking, isn’t it?

Social media turns private problems into public disasters

Yes, the contact centre may have succeeded in getting rid of today’s annoying service call by fobbing off the customer.  After all, it’s just one customer and we provide the service, so what can they do about it?

In the 21st century, however, the customer has social media to get their message out. They could choose to ‘name and shame’ their provider and ensure their poor quality experience reaches a wide audience. If a celebrity picks it up on Twitter, then the hits run into millions in very short order.

The internet also gives the complainant a mine of information on the company.

The company’s evasive and hard to follow complaints procedure designed to deflect feedback (in this case) can be circumvented when customers can easily find the director’s profiles on LinkedIn.  The uncontactable decision makers are suddenly very publicly available and can be held personally to account on social media.

The fact their officiously worded complaints process insists “if you write to the Chief Executive before following the rest of this process you will receive no response” does not help their cause. This is very definitely not ISO10002 compliant best practice in complaints management.

Social media now gives the individual consumer much more power to act, should they choose the complainant path defined by Day & Landon (1977) as “take 3rd party action.”  In 2002, research by Sampson said that a dissatisfied customer would leave the firm and tell around 20 people of their experience.

A decade later, Twitter gives the dissatisfied customer several orders of magnitude greater influence.

What are the lessons from this service failure?

First: prevention is better than cure.

It remains truly shocking that a modern utility provider can allow this situation to arise in the first place.  The “computer says no” culture no longer has a place in today’s customer centric world.  It doesn’t matter whether this failure has been driven by the rush to profit and a ‘sales first’ policy or carelessness in planning and resourcing the delivery side of an organisation. Such a breach of basic customer service and follow up recovery action is indefensible.

Checkpoint: How good is your organisation at identifying and preventing problems occurring before they reach the stage of a customer having to complain?

Second: take positive action to rectify the situation at the first complaint.

In this example, the organisation has missed the golden opportunity in two customer contacts (real “moments of truth”) to fix the customer’s problem.  That’s really bad and they’ve now made a bad situation worse.

Morris (1988) has shown how an organisation’s response can positively affect customer repurchase intentions. Compounding the initial problem with a further delay, incompetent mishandling and no attempt to take responsibility for the problem breaches too many areas of good practice.

Checkpoint: What does your organisation do to fix customer’s problems at the first point of contact, as soon as you become aware of the situation?

Third: apologise, explain and fix the problem – or risk 21st century public retribution.

Customers are sophisticated enough to know when they’re being fobbed off. Don’t give them a reason to pull the 21st century trigger embodied in the ‘tweet now’ button.  Assuming your organisation finally decides to fix the problem, the degree of effort put into your response has to be proportionate to the size of the hole you’ve dug yourself into.  “Sorry” no longer cuts it.

In this case, derisory offers of compensation far below the value of the inconvenience have already been made. These just add insult to injury as a formulaic response that is inappropriate to the customer’s situation, whilst the problem remains and is being compounded.

Our case study customer has had plenty of time deprived of the internet in which to craft their 21st century assault when the service finally comes up. The organisation has succeeded in turning someone from “a bit fed up” into a positively rabid complainant with a series of grievances and a strong sense of perceived injustice (Blodgett et al, 1997).

Dangerous stuff for people with a Twitter account.

Checkpoint:  How well do our complaint responses and service recovery actions match the customer’s situation and sense of injustice?

How does this customer experience story end?

That’ll be up to the Board of Directors for this utility company.  LinkedIn has helpfully provided their electronic contact details that they choose not to provide on their company complaints page.

They are now the last backstop between the customer, their complaint story and the world wide web. Their final “moment of truth” opportunity approaches like a freight train.

Will they fob off the customer as just one annoyed individual, or launch an investigation into how their service department delivers broken promises, poor service quality, wasted profits and customer dissatisfaction?

If they are in any doubt as to how the customer might react, I would recommend a thorough read of Richens (1982) and Day’s (1984) studies into consumer complainant behaviour before they decide to hit ‘send’ on their response.

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