Text: Erik Bouwer

In almost every country you can find television programs that focus on consumers. They pay attention to worst practices and make companies accountable for bad customer service. Sometimes they work together with local consumer organizations or pressure groups. Every company knows that the customer first complaints in his own social environment. The impact is of this social environment has increased substantially in recent years – and this is not due to birthday parties. Online social networks, forums and blogs are gaining influence. And as part of social media, Twitter has become one of the most important influence factors for two reasons: speed and range.

A tweep (someone who uses Twitter to communicate) with a few followers seems rather innocent. But if he makes use of the proper hashtags (words marked with the # symbol) and if within his relatively small group of followers has one or two Tweeps with a large number of followers), a snowball effect will occur. A tweep with a large number of followers is even more dangerous. When it comes to consumer affairs, an influential tweep only needs a single tweet to cause a tremendous avalanche.
One of the most famous comedians In The Netherlands, Youp van ‘t Hek, experienced a problem with the service which was offered by mobile operator T-Mobile. He wrote a tweet about bad service of T-Mobile and in a few days his number of followers (which started at 40,000) almost doubled to 70,000. The comedian, in collaboration with a national newspaper, announced an e-mail address and called for sending in complaints about callcenters. A few weeks later he had received thousands of tweets and almost 11,000 e-mail messages. T-Mobile’s service came under fire, but a large proportion of the complaints and stories that were e-mailed, concerned the functioning of customer service departments and contact centers of utilities, banks, insurance companies and telcom providers.
The comedian decided to announce a (one time) glossy magazine in which he would put together a cross section of complaints he had received. This magazine, including naming and shaming, appeared on the shelves of all kiosk stores in The Netherlands. While branch- and professional organizations tried to avoid the topic, the media jumped on top of it.

The comedian is especially – also on behalf of tens of thousands of followers – angry over the organization of customer service. If something goes wrong, it often changes into a disaster: long waiting times and staff on the phone that can’t tackle the problem. “Just answer the phone,” is his first recommendation.
Mind you, this whole ‘campaign-against-customer service’ is based on a single complaint from a single customer about a single company, on which a single person has sent out a single twitter message. In this case, the telco is haunted (but not exclusively) by a Dutch celebrity – the comedian was, in an arelier stage, capable of killing a new brandname of Heineken, the brewer. The manufacturer decided to stop all production, marketing and sales activities after a million dollar campaign.

The second problem the comedian is pointing out, is that many callers encounter complex procedures and limited options instead of solving the problem right away. If the customers problem isn’t solved, often thare is no alternative for customer service. While contact center professionals and managers are worried about service levels or new policies with fancy names (customer experience management, net promoter score and first time fix rate) many customer cases end up wrongly or unsolved. Even if processes are optimized and customer service is of high level, the problem cases attract attention.
More than ever companies need to be aware of the fickleness of the customer. That volatility is no longer solely determined by the choice of customers (i.e. whether or not to become a customer), but also by the choice of existing customers to decide to share their dissatisfaction with the rest of the world. In social media there is always someone listening too. Reputational damage is no longer just caused by poor service or a bad product, but now also by dissatisfied customers, who act on a new platform: the fast and worldwide Internet, a place to share believes and complaints. The net results for – in this case – T-Mobile: a lot of negative media exposure and a lot of work to get on top of it.

Erik Bouwer (1966) is editor of the Dutch Customer Contact Magazine. As editor in chief of Intellectueel Kapitaal – a Dutch business magazine on knowledge technology – one of his areas of expertise is social media. Bouwer worked for several years in customer service. He is a journalist since 1999.