This article looks at the trend towards using social media to voice customer complaints and makes some practical suggestions to assist organisations to respond appropriately and contain reputation damage.

Customers are increasingly using social media to voice complaints

These days, a customer who has a poor experience can very easily make a complaint about it using a variety of social media channels. The channels include social networking sites (ie facebook), content communities (ie YouTube), internet forums, blogs and microblogs (ie twitter), product review sites (ie or and complaint websites like, or People who want to publicly air their grievances are finding and creating new social media opportunities and avenues every day. There are even online groups who are educating debt collection agencies on how to leverage social media to increase revenue.

Using social media to make a complaint is attractive to some customers as it can be a fast and easy way to get attention and spur the organisation quickly into action. The customer doesn’t need to look for the organisations complaints handling process on its website or wait on the phone to speak to a customer services officer and there are no forms to complete. Instead, they can tweet their complaint or immediately post it online and generate a sympathetic audience. Up to 20% of complaints are now made via social media and organisations need structures and systems in place in order to respond to this developing trend.

The number of consumers using social media to ‘talk’ to companies is steadily increasing. In the UK, 18 million people are already using social media for customer services purposes. Of those who have interacted with a company via social media for their customer service needs, two-thirds (68%) say it allows them to find their voice and 65% say it’s a better way to interact with companies than a call centre.[1]

Some customers turn to social media out of frustration

If the customer has had a poor experience within the organisations complaints handling process he or she may turn to social media out of frustration. Canadian musician Dave Carrol made a complaint to United Airlines about his guitar being broken by baggage handlers, but after 10 months of unsuccessful negotiations with the airline, he recorded a song called “United Breaks Guitares.” The YouTube video went viral with 1.3M views in its first 3 days and 10M views within 6 months. The company subsequently lost 10% of its share value, a whopping $180M although the direct link between the loss and the Carrol video is hard to prove.

Clearly the worst case scenario for an organisation is when communications about a complaint go completely viral across a number of different channels. This can put the organisation directly in the spotlight in front of thousands of existing and potential customers and can negatively impact on the organisations reputation and resources. The popularity of a viral post is something that the mainstream media picks up on – thus widening the viewing audience. This occurred with the Dave Carrol YouTube video – it was also featured on breakfast shows on Australian television and the song was available for download from iTunes.

Disgruntled complainants are becoming creative in their use of social media

Complainants can creatively use technology to reach wide audiences and the technology is often free. One Vodafone customer was so upset about his customer experience that he created a new website called “Vodafail” and he used this as the vehicle for driving large numbers of complaints by other customers and airing his own negative views about Vodafone mobile coverage. The CEO of Vodafone subsequently uploaded an apology and explanation to YouTube. Before long, the apology was incorporated by customers into a further complaint satire called “Vodafone the Musical” which was also featured on YouTube.

Complaints via social media are opportunities to showcase best practice complaints handling

Looking on the positive side, complaints provide the organisation with an opportunity to showcase effective complaints handling and to transform the complainant AND the onlookers into advocates of the organisation. The organisations response to a complaint made on social media may be publicised as widely as the complaint and this means the organisation has a chance to influence thousands of customers who are following the online conversation. A good example of this is “the Virgin Complaint Letter” which was written by a disgruntled advertising executive on his way from Mumbai to Heathrow. His long letter addressed to “dear Richard” complained about the food served on the flight and was punctuated by humorous descriptions and photographs of the offending meals. The letter reached a wide audience via email.

When asked about the complaint, Sir Richard Branson reportedly said “I read it and laughed my head off. I was on holiday so I gave him a ring and we had a good laugh together,” he said. “We have actually won prizes in India (for our food) but it obviously wasn’t to an Englishman’s taste at all and I said we would make sure we tried to get the presentation more to his taste next time. I offered him the job of coming down to the airline and seeing if he could help in terms of presentation.”

The way this complaint was handled put Virgin in a good light – the complaint was handled personally by Richard Branson, he was open and responsive, he acknowledged the complainants concerns whilst still promoting the brand and he also displayed a sense of humour.

Turning negatives into positives – strategies for dealing with social media complaints

Organisations need to get on the front foot to deal with complaints via social media. Here are some practical strategies for doing this:-


  1. Get clear on who has responsibility for social media complaints within the organisation. This is no time for a turf war between the IT department, Sales and Marketing and Customer Relations. There needs to be an integrated approach.
  2. If the social media staff are to be responding to complaints then make sure they have had the relevant training in complaints handling. The skills necessary to work in the digitally savvy IT world are different to the skills traditionally found and cultivated within customer relations. Organisations need to bridge this gap with customer service and complaints handling training.
  3. Make sure that customers can easily find and access your complaints handling process. The easier it is for the customer to complain directly to you, the less likely they are to use an online forum over which you have no control.
  4. Develop a policy for responding to complaints via social media and integrate it across the organisation.
  5. Streamline your processes so that the right person in your team handles enquiries and complaints. First contact resolution is critical to customer satisfaction and will reduce escalation to social media channels.
  6. Invest in a social media listening program. There are a number of social media monitoring or tracking apps out there and they will help you find out who is saying what about your organisation.
  7. Ensure your social media staff have sufficient authority to provide meaningful remedies and resolve complaints without escalation. Ensure their key performance criteria (KPI’s) include customer service and complaints resolution.
  8. Resource your online customer services adequately so that fast responses can be made to online enquiries and complaints –customers expect faster responses via social media that via traditional forms of communication.
  9. Cultivate a culture where it is acceptable to have open and transparent conversations with customers, potential customers and the broader public. Where appropriate, be ready to discuss issues, acknowledge errors and apologise if necessary.
  10. Utilise the feedback you receive through social media channels to improve your products and services, systems and procedures. Let complainants know that their feedback is valuable and will be used to make improvements.
  11. View social media as an opportunity to listen to your customers. It’s just another feedback channel that needs to be serviced and supported by suitably qualified personnel.


  1. Don’t ignore the complaint, it’s not going to go away, it will only get bigger
  2. Don’t give the customer an opportunity to add a complaint about your complaints process to their original complaint. Customers expect procedural efficiency when you are handling their complaint, so respond to the complaint promptly and follow through on what you say you are going to do.
  3. Don’t just refer the customer back to your 1800 line – the customer expects immediate and direct action. To be bounced back to the place they probably started will only annoy them.
  4. Don’t hide behind smoke screens. Customers expect organisations to be authentic and transparent in their approach.

Social media is just another avenue for feedback and information about your organisation. With increasing numbers of customers embracing online technology, your organisation needs to have an integrated and coordinated approach to responding to complaints via social media.

Cullaborate delivers a one-day workshop “Strategies for Social Media Complaints” as an inhouse workshop on request. Please contact [email protected] for further information.