#complainvertising – The Future is Now for Social Customer Service


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There is no question that social media has impacted customer service. It has transformed a conversation that was once one-to-one to one-to-millions. It has also provided a platform for unsatisfied customers to broadcast their negative reviews to countless listeners. This idea of public complaints was taken to new heights when British Airways passenger Hasan Syed purchased a promoted tweet to complain about the airline’s customer service, setting the stage for a new trend – “complainvertising,” a trend defined as the act of paying for an ad to amplify a customer complaint.

While spending thousands of dollars on social advertising may not be the first instinct for most dissatisfied customers, this course of action could easily be emulated by those who have the means and drive to do so. To combat this requires superior service from the get-go, meaning customer service agents must be well-trained and well-equipped to deal with numerous types of customer complaints.

What can brands do to arm themselves against such potentially damaging “complainvertising?”

The Internet introduced the concept of “always on,” and consumers now demand immediate answers. As we learned from Syed’s public interactions with British Airways, even billion dollar, international companies are challenged to meet the expectations of today’s consumers. British Airways, like countless other companies, only offers social media support from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. despite the fact that social media is a channel that operates 24/7. While this timeframe may be sufficient for local, brick and mortar businesses, when a company operates in multiple time zones and has customers using its services around the clock, a more robust and thorough social customer service strategy is in order.

Social customer service best practices indicate there are six optimal steps for service flow and escalation path:

1. Listen
2. Categorize
3. Route
4. Templatize
5. Personalize
6. Analyze

As incidents travel through this service flow, “hot cases” that require immediate response can be transferred to an on-call team and less pressing issues trigger an automated message. This acknowledges receipt of the complaint and informs the customer that a company representative will respond during operating hours. In some cases, they provide the option for the customer to schedule a specific call-back time. These options allow brands to ensure customers feel heard and valued even if they have to wait for assistance. Companies must aim to catch these incidents before they escalate into a more serious problem. Ultimately, a brand’s primary goal needs to be to pivot these public conversations to a private channel, and by providing a prompt response – even an automated one – brands will be able to ease the minds of customers and buy time to respond.

Each business is unique and, therefore, must examine the needs of their individual customers and develop a social customer service strategy that is appropriate for the business, which means a program that matches and often exceeds those needs. For example, Royal Mail, the postal service in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, has customer service agents available on Twitter Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. These hours may sound limited, but Royal Mail is functioning within industry best practices. The postal service only provides services to customers during the same scheduled business hours in their physical locations and operates within a single time zone. Furthermore, Royal Mail has made it a tradition to notify their customers – in a fun way – when they sign on and off Twitter each day. Through this simple gesture, customers aren’t left in the dark and are re-assured that someone will get back to them.

Even though Royal Mail announces their close of business each day that does make them immune to after-hours tweets. In 2012, they were faced with a particularly interesting incident that resulted in more than 10,000 tweets and retweets complaining about Royal Mail’s decision to group together Paralympic gold medal winners on a single stamp versus each medal winner having his or her own stamp. Through a social media listening tool, Royal Mail was able to swiftly set up a filter to identify the common theme, respond to them with a templated, yet personalized tweet and end the thread automatically. Without such a feature, Royal Mail would have been swamped for days trying to sort through and respond to individual tweets.

Royal Mail only operates in a single time zone; however, for a company that spans the globe it is now imperative that global, “always-on ” brands, like British Airways, develop a strategy for handling unhappy customers regardless of the time the complaint is registered. In some cases instituting 24/7 customer service may be too costly and brands may be concerned with managing such an expense, but there are more cost-effective alternatives available. At the very least, companies should be actively “listening” across all social channels throughout the day.

Is there a way for a brand to future-proof its image?

Brands that continue to bury their heads in the sand will quickly find themselves behind the eight ball of innovation and opportunity. They’re not only risking damage to their image and sales, but also looking at the loss of existing and potential customers. According to Gartner, a brand’s failure to respond via social channels can lead to up to a 15 percent increase in churn rate for existing customers. Furthermore, poor reviews and negative word-of-mouth have the potential to impact overall customer lifetime value.

What countless brands don’t realize is that social media is no longer the future. Social media is now and consumers are active online even if the company isn’t. This isn’t about future-proofing your brand, this is about keeping up with communication and creating a customer service strategy that will best serve the present-day consumer. Today’s customer is not only social, but also mobile and companies must embrace all channels.

• According to Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, the number of online U.S. adults who use social media sites climbed from 8 percent to 72 percent since 2005. Although voice remains the most frequently used channel, social is gaining popularity, especially among younger generations and could very well surpass voice as the customer service channel of choice.
• LiveOps research also shows that the social channel is the fastest growing customer service channel of choice.

What are some of the hidden benefits to social media?

Brands that fail to become comfortable and confident on social channels now may face a bleak future. Aside from the potential loss of revenue from unhappy customers, brands are also missing the opportunity to utilize the contact center to generate revenue with inbound and outbound queries. Furthermore, mobile devices give consumers a universal communications tool and the ability to interact with brands however, whenever, and wherever they want. Mobile devices and social channels have changed customer service for retailers by providing consumers with the easiest and most effective way to interact with brands.

• A 2013 PwC Report indicates 56 percent of U.S. shoppers are spending more with multichannel retailers, making it imperative that brands keep pace with these social consumers.
• eMarketer recently estimated that by 2017 online retail sales purchased via a mobile device will rise to 25 percent.
• eMarketer estimated U.S. retail m-commerce sales will reach nearly $39 billion in 2013, up 56.5 percent over 2012 and almost triple the amount spent in 2011.

These numbers indicate that m-commerce is on a radical incline and retailers must prepare their contact centers accordingly.


It is still unclear as to what is holding brands back from embracing social channels. Can it truly be just a budgetary issue? Or is it good old fashioned fear? Either way, it’s time for companies to embrace these channels and their potential to both impact a company’s image and bottom line.

The British Airways situation certainly provides a good learning opportunity and a reminder of the harsh reality that companies can face if social grievances go unanswered. After all, the last thing any business wants is a negative tweet “flying around.”

Ann Ruckstuhl
Ann Sung Ruckstuhl is senior vice president and chief marketing officer at LiveOps. In her role, Ruckstuhl drives LiveOps' overall marketing and lead generation strategies across the customer lifecycle. Her responsibilities include corporate, product, field and partner marketing, public relations, analyst relations, social media, demand creation, lead nurturing and customer retention.


  1. Embracing social media as a customer support channel is a clear illustration of a couple of things.

    1. The exiting support channels are not working properly. Virtually every story of a complaint that ends up on a social media outlet began as a failed service effort within traditional channels. How is it that the complaint on Twitter gets a different response than the original phone call? If you reward social media complaints with better resolutions, you encourage customer to use that channel. Is that what is really wanted? Fix the traditional service channels.

    2. Social media must be a marketing initiative first and a customer gripe line somewhere down the list. Handle the posting but through a call to the customer. Encourage the behavior you want customers to exhibit rather than reacting to every posting on every trackable social media channel. Customers want the problem solved. There is no requirement to solve the problem with the public watching.

    Call centers have their purpose and their tools. Marketing has its purpose and its tools. Social media is forcing these 2 areas to collaborate and in my experience, neither is very comfortable doing this. In my experience, it takes a very senior exec to draw the lines of what and how each unit will operate with regard to the social interface of the company. Marketing staff should not be engaging customers who are griping just as call center agents have no business posting company statements or viewpoints on a social media site. It’s not so much that it is hard to do as it is a different way to operate; it crosses management domains.

    The agile companies have figured out how to have 2 very different business units co-exist on social media. Time for the big boys to step up their game and follow the best ideas from the agile.


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