Online Gripes: Why You Should Call First, Tweet Later

I expend a lot of words in this and other venues beating on companies that fail to deliver the high-quality goods and services that customers expect and deserve. The bad news, of course, is that there's still plenty of reason to be angry and dissatisfied with some tech vendors.

Fortunately, there is good news as well. Social networking sites and tools amplify your angry voice thousands of times over, and give you a reasonable chance of knocking Goliath on his butt. "Consumers are empowered by social networking in a way we've never seen before," says, Jeremiah Owyang, a Web strategist and a partner in the Altimeter Group.

But be warned. Getting attention is not the same as getting results. "It's easier to call attention to a broad social issue than it is for an individual consumer to resolve a grievance," says Joe Ridout, manager of consumer services for San Francisco Consumer Action.

And while you may be angry, it's smart to temper your rage, not only because it's never wrong to be polite, but also because a wildly over the top blog post or even a tweet could result in a libel suit.

[What are people saying about you online? See CIO.com's recent articles with advice and tools for managing your personal reputation in the age of Facebook and Twitter. ]

You're Not Kevin Smith

By now, you've surely heard the tale of Kevin Smith, the plus-sized director booted off a Southwest Airlines (LUV) flight for being too, well, big. Smith, of course, tweeted his head off and rightly embarrassed the folks running the airline into offering "heartfelt apologies" in addition to the $100 voucher he had already received.

That's a great story, but you're not Kevin Smith. And if you're not a newsworthy name, you simply won't get the attention lavished on him by the media. Social networking is not some magic bullet that always disintegrates the target. Here are some tips on how to use it effectively.

To being with, don't start by Tweeting or Facebooking or blogging, consumer advocates say. Believe it or not, a lot of complaints are resolved by going through the front door. If the first person doesn't help you, escalate to the next and the next and the next, all the while keeping a careful record of whom you talked with and what they said, suggests Ridout. And try not to scream at anyone; it probably won't help and it's bad karma to beat on low-paid folks at a call center.

That written record establishes the proverbial paper trail needed if things get ugly and you need to prove that you have exhausted all normal and non-litigious means of obtaining satisfaction. If you have the patience, writing a letter (send it certified mail) to the company's Mr. Big has been known to work. Often they get routed to someone who is actually paid to think about customer satisfaction, even if the CEO never sees it, which he probably won't.

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When You're Stymied

No matter how articulate you are, your written outrage has to be seen to be effective. Simply having a blog doesn't mean that a cutting account of your travails will be seen by enough people (or the right people) to make a difference.

If you're dealing with a relatively small company, and you live in a city such as San Francisco where Yelp is widely read, you've got a great tool. Small businesses worry about what consumers say about them on Yelp and know that one bad review seems to spur others to write negatively as well.

Once you've posted the review, you can up the ante, by tweeting the link to your followers and asking them to retweet. You might ask others who have had similar bad experiences with the business to post their own reviews.

Be honest. Don't exaggerate. If your review and tweets seem spiteful and over the top, the business owner might mistake you for a competitor trying to sabotage him. What's more, you can be sued. It's not terribly likely, says Bijal Vakil, a partner with the law firm of White & Case in Palo Alto, Calif., but it does happen.

Posting complaints on popular Web sites can be useful. Consumerist.com gets a lot of attention, and because it is now owned by Consumers Union, it gets respect as well. PCWorld, our sibling publication, has a record of getting results for aggrieved buyers of technology products. Or, look for sites that deal with a specific company or industry, such as carcomplaints.com.

How Should a Business Respond?

So far we've talked about how consumers can make waves via social networking; but what about the business trying to navigate these treacherous waters? "Companies need to become the stewards of consumer reviews," says Altimeter's Owyang. Simply put, you need to monitor sites that your customers may use as a platform to complain. If possible, make that a regular part of someone's job.

Of course, it can be very difficult to keep tabs on a plethora of sites and a flood of feeds, so pick the ones most popular in your locale. Salesforce.com and SAP have recently incorporated features in their software that allow businesses to monitor social networking sites, says Owyang. However, the applications are still fairly rudimentary.

If you're a business thinking about suing the host of a site or service provider whose service enables a consumer to post a review you consider defamatory, you won't succeed, says Vakil. "Providers of interactive services are only liable for the speech that is properly attributable to them. This type of policy is designed to encourage vibrant and free communication of ideas on the Internet," he says.

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Owyang has another bit of important advice. Just as it's important for consumers not to overstate their case, businesses that attempt to cover up or misrepresent themselves using social media often get caught.

Earlier this year a vocal online supporter of a new Wal-Mart (WMT) store in Chicago was exposed for having ties to Wal-Mart's PR firm, Owyang recounts. What an embarrassment. Here's a list of other companies that were caught and, as Owyang puts it, "punk'd."

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

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