What is the best way to get your complaint sorted out by a company that is driving you up the wall? A few years ago the answer might have been a string of irate phone calls followed by a letter to the company and perhaps to your favourite newspaper’s consumer agony aunt. But, increasingly, it seems that 140 characters are doing the job of 1,000 words.
Companies as diverse as banks, gym chains, travel agencies and large retailers are using Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Facebook, to resolve consumer complaints in hours or even minutes rather than the usual days, weeks, or months.
Twitter has become so widely used for airing grievances that companies such as BT, Halifax and LA Fitness have Twitter accounts specifically to deal with customer feedback, separate from their general public-facing accounts. For example, BT has @BTcare, First Direct has @firstdirecthelp, Halifax has @AskHalifaxBank and La Fitness has @LAFitnessUkHelp.
La Fitness set up its account after an article in the Guardian about the company’s poor customer care caused a storm of protest on Twitter. Hundreds of people bombarded its US account as well as a little-used UK account that it had previously used solely to share exercise and diet tips.
It has since has taken on a new public relations agency and set up two separate Twitter accounts, @LAFitnessUK_HQ, which it uses to promote itself, and@LAFitnessUkHelp, which deals directly with people’s complaints. The latter is now dealing regularly with customer services issues.
Last week a member of the gym chain, Guy Sumner, took to Twitter to complain about the gym’s cancellation policy. He tweeted: “Cancellation policy for @LAfitnessUK_HQ is awful. 15 mins on hold and then it’s a month notice from the 1st day of next month … and they won’t do anything to help even though it’s the 3rd day of the month. Awful customer care.”
Just four minutes later a representative of @LAfitnessUKhelp replied: “Hi Guy — can you DM [direct message] me your membership number? Thanks, Alice.”
The Observer asked Sumner what happened next. “LA Fitness gave me an email address of someone in their customer services team,” he says. “I emailed her everything that had happened and why I wanted to leave. She then replied and cancelled my membership so it now only runs until the end of this month instead of the end of June. Twitter was very useful as I managed to get it all resolved in two working days.”
Halifax is another company that uses a separate Twitter username, @AskHalifaxBank, for customer service issues. Earlier this week, one Twitter user, Kelly-Anne Smith, tweeted about the bank, saying:
“Good LORD @askhalifaxbank how can 1 company make SUCH a mess of Isa transfers? I’m on hours of phonecalls, branch visits & still not sorted.”
Minutes later @AskHalifaxBank responded. It forwarded her details directly to a member of the customer services team and asked them to contact Smith directly. It ended by saying: “If we can help with anything in future, feel free to tweet.”
Halifax hasn’t followed up its tweet so far, says Smith, which she is disappointed about. But she says she would use Twitter again to complain.
“I complained about Fitness First, who immediately messaged me, got my number and called to fix the issue straight away. They were great and I tweeted again to say as much,” she says. “I’ve done it several times and on the whole find it a much more effective way of getting help. Having always tried normal routes first but to no avail.”
Despite cut-backs, increasing numbers of companies are employing separate teams to deal with complaints via Twitter and Facebook. Nationwide building society now has a dedicated social media team and has just launched a Facebook page to answer questions and promote its products. It is set to launch a customer-facing Twitter account in the next couple of weeks.
“If you have a complaint, at the moment, the best way to contact Nationwide is through the normal channels,” says Paul Beadle, social media press officer for the building society. “However, we have realised that those channels need to be expanded.”
First Direct has been using the account @FirstDirectHelp, for some time. The bank employs a digital team to monitor it and look after Facebook responses and queries. Its spokeswoman admits Twitter can be a quicker route to getting a complaint resolved.
“We aim to respond to a tweet within an hour and whilst it’s difficult to put a figure on it, at the moment it has definitely improved the time to resolution, which was already good,” she says.
Most of the companies we spoke to were unwilling to admit publicly that Twitter can be a quicker way for customers to get complaints resolved. But, speaking off the record, one banking industry representative was more candid.
“We find there are two types of Twitter people. Those who use it generally to talk about everything, who might mention a complaint about our brand in passing. We would contact them and direct them to the normal complaints channels,” he says.
“Then you get people who are not happy with a response they have had from us and believe by shouting about this on Twitter they will get a personal response. It’s true that Twitter can be a way of escalating complaints in this situation. It is basically another version of a newspaper’s consumer agony aunt, as on Twitter that complaint could be seen by thousands of people.”
The threat of bad publicity via social media certainly seems to have companies on the hop. One reader tells the tale of spending three months trying to get a refund from a well-known travel company using phone calls, emails and letters. In the end he contacted the company via an email address for its social media team.
“I sent them a one-line email stating: ‘No tweets yet. But there will be if this matter is not resolved immediately’,” he said. “This was sent at 15.30 one afternoon — by 21.00 the same day I had received a full refund, plus a £100 voucher.”
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