Social shaming: the young consumer’s very modern weapon

Iona Bain

All publicity is good publicity, right? Wrong.

The United Airlines controversy earlier this year showed just how quickly poor crisis management can decimate company shares. And we financial journalists know as soon as we mention our job titles when making a customer complaint, we usually receive a positive outcome, such is the corporate terror triggered by a whiff of bad press.

But now the internet is making it possible for anyone to kick up a stink in a most public fashion. Research from comparison site Gocompare suggests that UK companies have paid out £65 million in compensation to customers who took to social media to complain about services and products. The proportion of British consumers who have aired their grievances online is still relatively small (15 per cent), but the results are pretty effective – 55 per cent say their issue was resolved quickly and more than a quarter received either money off or a goodwill gift.

I have a name for it. Social shaming. And surely it’s only going to get more popular?

It’s quicker than posting a letter and free (in stark comparison to hanging on a premium rate phone line). It’s far easier for those who hate confrontation in person or over the phone – i.e. most Brits – and your complaint could reach an unlimited audience, exposing poor customer service in a way that analogue warriors from years gone by could only dream of.

And BOY do companies know it. Social media engagement has become compulsory for even the most traditional brands, with many putting considerable resources and effort into cultivating a cuddly online persona. But you live by the sword and you die by the sword; companies also need dedicated social media accounts to placate The Awkward Squad before they get out of hand and undermine a carefully-nurtured public image.

Not that long ago, I had a WIFI outage at home. As a self-employed journalist, this was not a blip I could afford. I phoned my provider TalkTalk and spoke to a rather impersonal and inflexible chap, who told me that an engineer would be sent out within 72 hours. In the meantime, I just had to sit tight.

It was nearly 48 hours after the problems began, and I became impatient. I decamped to my local overcrowded coffee shop, took to Twitter and contacted TalkTalk to tell them I was still waiting for a fix.

Within half an hour, I was contacted by someone from the chief executive’s office (no less) who told me that an engineer would be sent out as a matter of urgency.

Sure enough, someone came within hours and I was back online, with a follow-up courtesy call giving me a contact number for the CEO’s office should there be any further problems.

Great result, surely? Except that recent Ofcom figures confirmed my experience was not the norm. Only half of TalkTalk customers are satisfied with how their complaints are handled (the lowest out of any telecoms/broadband provider). And it used to be the case that TalkTalk could send out an engineer the next working day to fix a problem, but this was downgraded to a typical two day wait in 2016 (again, the longest wait out of any broadband provider bar Sky).

Ofcom is currently consulting on rules to provide compensation for those who are made to wait more than two days for a repair. But how strange – it turns out that firms like TalkTalk CAN perform repairs much quicker, but only for those who go on social media.

So where does that leave more traditional customer service channels? What happens to those who can’t or don’t want to jump on the social-shaming bandwagon? Seemingly, it’s one rule for the Twitter mob and another for the millions who rely on other channels to get their voice heard.

But at the same time, I consider social shaming to be a (mostly) positive development for young consumers. For social media is our natural habitat and goodness knows there are enough downsides to living in the digital wilderness. Jon Ronson’s recent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed demonstrates just how devastating and long-lasting the after-effects of a social media scandal can be when it befalls an ordinary misguided civilian. (It’s well worth a read!)

Companies? They’re fair game. A friend of mine recently tweeted about she obtained a voucher code from The Nudge London which then expired early because the vendor decided they no longer wanted the deal. I got involved:

The Nudge London then came back with this:

A slightly arsy response, no? It made me feel rather small and like I had overstepped the mark. But my friend was right, the company was wrong and as soon as I jumped in, the problem was miraculously resolved behind the scenes and she got a new voucher code (after the company had done pretty much nothing to help her previously). This is definitely NOT how companies should handle social media complaints (or indeed their customers). You can’t just sort out the issue behind closed doors in the hope that the mistake won’t leak out – or indeed wait for a financial journalist with an influential blog to tweet before you do something. Or sanctimoniously imply that you’re right and the customer is wrong! You must honestly explain what has happened, apologise and demonstrate that you can be trusted. Firms aren’t perfect, but those who properly atone for their mistakes will keep the loyalty of current customers – and attract the respect of future ones. By contrast, I would be reluctant to use The Nudge London in future if this is how it deals with problems.

Yes, the pen may be mightier than the sword, and a good old-fashioned letter may still do the business if you’re in a complaining mood. But the keyboard (or phone screen) is surely the greatest weapon at our disposal today for fighting shoddy service and poor products.

Check back tomorrow for the Young Money ten point guide to social shaming…

This is an extended and amended version of an article that has previously appeared on the Spectator Money Blog.

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