A man throwing his phone in a Youtube video
Minerva Studio/Shutterstock

Businesses often try their best to ignore customer complaints, but they have a serious weak point: social media. With enough views or retweets, anyone can pull the attention of even the worst corporations.

Well, maybe not “anyone.” It’s hard for the average person to go viral. And as a result, it’s hard for most people to get wonderful customer service that comes with a viral complaint.

The Beginning of Social Media Damage Control

Businesses spend a ton of time and money building up a good reputation. Whether they sell quality products at a low price, give back to their local communities, or hire celebrity spokespeople, the goal is to gain the trust and recognition of consumers.

But in the words of Sentium, “bad news seems to travel faster than good news.” In the age of the all-powerful internet, a website like “www.your-business-sucks.com” can be set up and operational in about an hour.” A business could spend years building up a good relationship with consumers, only for that relationship to be torn apart by a viral complaint.

As an example, let’s look at the “United Breaks Guitars” video. In 2009, United Airlines baggage handlers broke a $3,500 guitar owned by a musician named Dave Carroll. Unsurprisingly, United Airlines refused to compensate Carroll for the guitar and made an effort to leave him in a bureaucratic customer service loop.

But Carroll had a trick up his sleeve. He uploaded the “United Breaks Guitars” music video to YouTube, and it quickly racked up more than a million views. While United made an effort to resolve the issue (after all, it was a PR nightmare), the damage was already done. United stock dropped 10% that month, and the viral complaint cost shareholders $180 million.

Wait, Businesses Don’t Really Care About Customers?

Over the last decade, businesses have had to deal with more and more viral complaints, from Patrick Stewart’s hatred of Time Warner to millions of complaints about counterfeit Amazon listings. Of course, as the internet continues to expand into infinity, these complaints will only grow more numerous.

That’s why, according to Forbes, customer service has blossomed into a 350 billion dollar industry. But that money is rarely spent on improving the solving the problems that create customer complaints (like poorly handled bags or counterfeit products). It’s mostly spent on social media damage control.

A Google search for “customer service viral” will yield a surprising number of articles from marketing websites and business magazines that are centered around the existential threat of viral complaints. Some of them even put together lists of “customer service wins.”

While most of these articles are peppered with jargon about “connecting with the customer” through social media, they’re heavily slanted toward the idea of damage control. They encourage businesses to use social media as a platform for customer service, but with the heavy-handed suggestion that only potentially viral complaints should be taken seriously.

As a result, people whose complaints can’t (or don’t) go viral are usually redirected to online customer service forms. The @AmazonHelp Twitter account, for example, spends most of its time redirecting customers to the Amazon website, even when customers claim to have already asked for help on the Amazon website.

Here’s the Problem: Not Everyone Can Go Viral

The ability to punish businesses for poor customer service is excellent for consumers. Going viral can resolve a bad customer experience while simultaneously forcing companies and shareholders to implement better customer service policies.

It’s a shame not everybody has the means to go viral—and that those who don’t are often left with customer service experiences.

Remember Dave Carroll, the guy whose guitar was mangled by United Airlines baggage handlers? He went viral because he could put together a fun, well-edited, and well-written video about his experience. That experience resonated with a ton of other airline passengers (which helped the video go viral), but only Carroll benefited from the controversy. Need proof? In 2017, a Reddit thread full of United Airlines nightmare stories accumulated over 3,000 posts. Unsurprisingly, the thread is full of complaints about poorly handled bags.

For a similar (but more topical example) let’s compare how Amazon handled a complaint from rapper Ice-T to the way that Amazon handles other, lower-profile complaints. Ice-T complained on Twitter that he almost shot an Amazon delivery driver and that delivery drivers should wear “Amazon” vests. He didn’t even tag Amazon in the post, but he got a clear response in less than half an hour.

Looking at the @AmazonHelp Twitter page, it’s clear that many people (with less ridiculous complaints) don’t get the same treatment. One customer complained that he didn’t receive a package after ten days, couldn’t get in touch with Amazon, and was then repeatedly patronized by Amazon on Twitter. He was also told that Amazon support takes 6-12 hours to respond to complaints, but Ice-T received a response in less than half an hour. Isn’t that odd?

Are There Alternatives to Going Viral?

There’s no one secret to going viral. In the end, the answer is probably “luck” and “preexisting fame,” so there needs to be a better way to get good customer service.

If you’re stuck in an endless loop of phone calls, unanswered emails, or underfunded items, then the best thing that you can do is shout into the void and hope that someone hears you. Try to get the issue resolved by dealing directly with the company, and if that doesn’t work, try taking the complaint public on Twitter, YouTube, or Reddit (or all three). Be sure to tag the company’s social media accounts in your public complaint, throw in some hashtags, and see what happens.

You could also piggyback on other social media posts to let the company (and potential customers) know that their customer service sucks. As public complaints gain more attention, businesses feel the urge to perform more damage control. They might even step up their customer service game and start treating non-viral complaints seriously. Wouldn’t that be nice?

If social media isn’t working and you’ve had a particularly bad experience, you could try contacting the local news or a news outlet or website that covers the company you’ve had a problem with. Platforms like that can get more eyes on your story and encourage the company to resolve it.

RELATED: I Called Out a Counterfeit Item on Amazon. Then They Banned Me.

Profile Photo for Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
Read Full Bio »