The Customer is Always Social: Voicing Complaints Online

Social media has fundamentally changed the way we go about our lives. Never before have we as a society been more interconnected with one another, both to our friends and strangers from around the world. But one of the more fascinating ways in which the world has changed through sites like Twitter and Facebook is when it comes to social standing. With celebrities and companies taking on public faces through these sites, people can connect and engage with them in ways they weren’t able to previously. And naturally, people have taken this advancement to voice their own opinions.

Today I want to specifically focus on how people use the social media pages of companies to lodge complaints. This is a little different to what I normally write about here, but given my university studies often tapped into online trends and habits, it is a fascinating topic for me (and hopefully will be for you!). What has sparked this article was a post on Sunday night on Big W’s public Facebook page. A woman photographed the manager of her local store, who had raised his middle finger to her, and posted it on their page demanding something be done about the way she was treated over her attempt to exchange an item.

Naturally, the comments section exploded. The original post was deleted soon after, but people have been posting on the Facbook page asking for further information on the situation, about whether anything has been done about it or to further the conversation. Below I’ve included a modified picture of the original post, edited so as to hide the identities of both the accuser and the manager, although this being the internet an un-edited one probably isn’t hard to find…

From that initial post, the comments quickly built up around two sides. A) the manager shouldn’t be carrying himself in such a manner and that Big W should fire him or B) that workers don’t respond in such a manner unprovoked, and that she was likely not telling the whole story. A representative on the Big W Facebook site apologised to her and asked for her to contact them privately so the matter could be dealt with (a response that is not at all uncommon for these types of social complaints) but the debate continued. Further light was shone on the situation when another commenter claimed to have been at the store when this incident went down, and the situation quickly grew more interesting.

Suddenly people turned against the original poster, and even went as far as to take her profile picture and create memes out of it mocking and insulting her. There were still people posting in favour of her, though whether they had seen the eye-witness response it is hard to know. Some of the commenters were briefly distracted when someone brought up his race, stating that he “doesn’t belong in Australia” which constructed a separate debate within the comments regarding nationality and race. That response presenting another side of the story was screenshot and re-posted deeper and deeper into the comments as a way of giving new viewers a chance to read another point of view.

The photo managed to rack up over 500 responses before it was eventually deleted from the Big W page. But this didn’t wipe the story from Facebook. In the minutes that followed its deletion people were posting screenshot pictures like the ones used above and posting them to the Big W page, asking for clarification as well as keeping it in the public forum for further debate, where people continued to voice their varying opinions on the topic.

It was fascinating to watch these events unfold in real time. Given the fast paced nature of the internet, and especially social media, it is easy to only come across this kind of thing after the dust has settled. While it is rare to see one explode in the way it did, social media has become a weapon in demanding a certain level of ‘customer service’, and people feel the need to voice their opinions on the topic. This is natural on social media, and often a desired side-effect of posting or sharing something. But the way this particular incident unfolded provided examples of how people react and interact with the network.

These social sites have become platforms for people to have their voice heard. Where often complaints would be lodged privately, now people are taking to these public forums, and using the nature of the site to force a company’s hand. If they feel they have been wronged, it becomes more than just one person’s problem, but a mob’s problem. Thousands of people suddenly flock to this person’s side and a company, looking to keep their public image as positive as possible, are now forced to deal with the matter out in the open where everyone’s eyes are on them. Naturally, any dealings in these situations tend to favour the person complaining.

In reality, this is just an extension of real life. Having worked in retail the primary rule was to make sure the customer left happy. Sometimes this meant bending over backwards or giving them the benefit of the doubt. Often, the situations reflected the Big W example. From the original and eyewitness accounts it seems the woman went to the desk wanting to exchange an item of clothing for a different size, but tried to do so without a receipt. While the official rules dictate that without a receipt the customer is not entitled to a refund or exchange (because otherwise there is no proof of purchase, the item could easily have been stolen or in the case of some stores bought elsewhere), it is not uncommon for this rule to be ignored by the staff in order to keep the customer happy. Why it was different in this situation isn’t clear, but the reaction from the woman tends to prove the reasoning in telling staff to ignore the rule if it will send the customer away content.

Generally, these social media situations are diffused in the same way. With the information they have to go off, and the public response generally negative, the company is forced to appease the person to save face. Sometimes these complaints are legitimate, and sometimes trying to sort out a matter privately doesn’t garner a fair response and so going public like this is the only way to make a stand. In these circumstances posting their problems on the company page can be pro-active and maybe even necessary given the tools are available to them.

But for every legitimate complaint that makes it across social media, there are plenty more where the complaint is either dubious or outright laughable. These are often then lampooned on social media through other pages designed to mock these customers. Fake ‘customer service’ representatives will respond to the complaints with over the top, sarcastic and aggressive replies. These jokes sometimes fly over the heads of the original commenters which leads to the actual company being forced to further engage in damage control.

In this case, the complaint backfired on the poster. People were screengrabbing her Facebook photos and sending abusive messages to her. This is not the first time someone has been attacked through social media either, segments of the online community take it upon themselves to administer their own ideas of ‘justice’ which often becomes personal. There is a lot of power at work here, but whether it is being used for good or not is the problem at hand. In the space of an hour a company was shamed, a worker’s condemning photo posted online without his permission, and another’s photo used to insult and shame.

The full story might not end up being told. The next morning those additional posts had also been deleted and the issues seemed to have at least temporarily faded away. Social media moves so quickly that this incident can easily become lost to dead air as another hot topic issue arises. Sometimes these situations pick up viral steam and gain further traction, but more often than not they slip off to be forgotten after a day. But as a small scale tool for observation, a case study like this speaks loudly as to how social media can be used as a tool and a soap box.

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