She advises customers to check the Better Business Bureau’s ratings before doing business with a company. Still, if you wind up filing a complaint (at www.bbb.org/complain), the bureau will open a dispute. If the company fails to respond within 30 days, the complaint is closed as “nonresponsive,” which hurts the company’s rating. Fewer than 5 percent of the more than 1 million complaints each year move to mediation or arbitration. The three industries that draw the most complaints: cell-phone service and equipment; new-car dealers; and television by cable or satellite.
If the old-fashioned ways don’t bring satisfaction, Consumerist’s Morran suggests an “executive e-mail carpet bomb.” This entails looking online for as many of the executives’ names as possible. “Once you see one e-mail [address] format, it’s usually the same for everyone else in the company,” he said. “In the e-mail, detail thoroughly in a polite but disappointed tone and send to everyone you can. It doesn’t always work, but people have been able to get some very positive responses, sometimes at a very high level.”
When, then, is it time to resort to social media? When do you make that YouTube video or blast out your complaint on the company’s Facebook page, or on Yelp, or send out scads of tweets? When you’re still not getting anywhere. “Social media is a great platform, and one bad experience can end up on the front of a newspaper,” Busse said. “You have the potential to damage their brand.”
If you’re holding too long on the phone, she suggests going on the company’s Twitter account or Facebook page and writing, “Tried for an hour to reach customer service.” The company might reply with a request for your phone number and an off-line conversation.
Or consider what an unhappy QCI Direct customer did. When her new rugs didn’t match the ones she’d bought a decade earlier, the catalog company took them back but wouldn’t refund the shipping costs. She posted her displeasure on QCI’s Facebook page. “It got our attention fast,” Mancine said. And the customer got her full refund. Officials who handle a company’s social media are often in different departments than customer services, she pointed out, and “may be able to help you if you are running into a dead end.”
There is a dark side, however, to consumers’ use of social media to hold businesses accountable. How does anyone know if a complaint or review is from a real customer with a real experience, good or bad? Or that a bribe of some sort hasn’t changed hands? Morran was told of a car dealership that offers a free oil change for a positive online review.
Some companies are working on ways to combat such abuses. Expedia, the online travel agency, has announced a policy of allowing only “verified” reviews for hotels. That is, anyone who posts a review needs to have used Expedia to book and pay for the hotel.
“Anyone can go online and put anything up,” said Sarah Keeling, an Expedia spokeswoman. “The hotel could put up a false positive review or the competitor a negative one.” With the new policy in place, people are submitting more-detailed reviews, she said, and more people are rating the reviews as helpful.
Sometimes you don’t even need to actually use social media to get your issue resolved. If you’re running into a major roadblock, just the (polite) threat to do so could turn the conversation your way.
After all, as Busse noted, the balance between consumers and businesses has shifted. “What used to be a one-on-one transaction,” she said, “is now one-on-many. Customers are very powerful now.”
The writer is a business columnist for The New York Times and the author of Better by Mistake. She’s at twitter.com/atugend.