Consumer Advocate Or Selfish Pig?

Posted by

Many people run to publish a customer service issue on Twitter, Facebook and/or a Blog, but who really benefits?

I don’t like to use this Blog space (or Twitter, Facebook, etc…) to gripe about brands (more about that here: Making Customers Attack). Bottom line, I don’t like to leverage this community for my personal gain. By complaining, it forces the brand to take a look at who I am and who I am connected to. I would not want any kind of favorable resolution simply because I have a small semblance of a community, or because I write a newspaper column. I don’t write a column or build this community so that brands will pay attention to me when I’m not satisfied. On top of that, you are not here to watch me publicly deal with a customer service issue. You’re here to be a media hacker along with me. You’re not here to be a part of my personal bidding.

But, it’s not all about me.

Most people don’t have a following. They’re online and they’re following their close friends while doing some celebrity stalking. On top of that, they’re not getting any help or resolution through the more traditional channels, and someone probably told them to try complaining on Twitter or Facebook. In turn, brands are responding to public outcry, and this must be making them smarter and better. At the very least, it gives everybody else watching some kind of inkling about how the brand performs (positive, negative and  neutral).

Is this real consumer advocacy?

If you look at some of the more respected online people who complain about a brand (those with a semblance of a community that extends beyond their personal family and friends), you hardly ever see much consumer advocacy beyond their own, personal resolution. That bothers me because most of them claim to be doing it to "keep the brands honest," but if that’s the case, wouldn’t those individuals do more? Things like: help their own community members if they have similar issues or really explain (in gory detail) how the resolution came to be? More often than not, you get this big, long, complaint rant and if the problem gets resolved, there is a one-liner that reads like, "great news! Brand XYZ responded and everything is right in the world!" 

Consumer advocacy is about much more.

Real consumer advocacy is about much more than one issue and one resolution. It’s about ongoing education. It’s about not getting something fixed once (and for yourself), but getting the laws changed so that no one else has to go through what said individual went through. It has to do with something bigger than just one brand (there’s usually similar issues within an industry). It’s about caring for the interest of every consumer (not just yourself).

I do worry about this.

It’s easy to fall into a trap. It’s easy to be stuck in a place where each individual leverages their online clout to get a customer service resolution. Let’s be clear, the more commonplace this becomes (and it’s happening each and every day), the more brands will start paying attention to people based on who they are (and who they are connected to) instead of doing the right thing because it’s simply the right thing to do. What we’ll all wind up with are brand feeds that are filled with apologies and boring content about another customer service issue and individual’s feeds that will be similar. I’m not sure I have a solution to this, but that isn’t the point of this Blog post. The real point is for all of us to be aware that – for the most part – the majority of people doing the majority of complaining, aren’t doing this as a public service, they’re doing it to get their stuff straightened up… and their leveraging the fact that you are connected to them to get this done. In more simple terms: they’re using you (sometimes with, but most of the time it’s without, your permission). Or, is this the future of consumer advocacy? A world where it’s totally fragmented, unorganized and driven by the individual?

How do you feel about consumer advocacy online?


  1. I would like to see how you publicly deal with a real customer service issue. But that’s just me and how I learn. Thanks for putting it out there day after day.

  2. Mitch, you’re spot on! Everyone talks about how social media has given people a voice. But just because you have a voice doesn’t mean you have something to say. As you mentioned too few follow it up with something positive when the issue is resolved.
    And as someone who works with brands every day I’m always sick when I see someone complaining. In my opinion it does more damage to their personal brand than they realize. No one likes to listen to complainers, or negative people. When someone is going off on a brand I usually get more annoyed at them than what the brand actually did.

  3. Mitch great post. No delta skelter for Mitch 8)
    in all seriousness this is a complex subject. The rule always was make a person happy they tell one. Make them unhappy they tell ten. Now both are exponential because of social media. I don’t think most complainers want a resolution, they just want to lash out and punish and now they have a platform too. To your point brands should be learning because in the past they never heard the gripes. But should a brand work to fix things on twitter while they let everyone else rot aka comcast cares, but only if you use twitter?
    I don’t think people should expect to be special. And brands should be working to make every customer special vs just the ones on social who gripe.

  4. The other side is that some people like that type of content and that brands are listening more and more (and doing something about it). I don’t think it’s one way or another.
    It’s like the people who retweet that a celebrity died, but then when they find out it’s a hoax, they don’t tweet that part out. That’s the sort of stuff that rubs me the wrong way.

  5. If you head back and re-read the Blog post I linked to in this post (When Customers Attack), you’ll see that I agree. There are many brands who now have it as policy that they must respond (and rectify) any mention in places like Twitter, Facebook, etc… I had an incident where I was trying to rectify something privately and was completely saddened to find out that the brand was actually forcing me to take it “public.”

  6. A related observation – when Mr. Social Media Celebrity gets kicked off a plane or dumped in a leaky hotel room, the masses go all out to champion his cause. Nevermind he’s probably the type of person who least needs anyone else to go to bat for him.
    How often does Mr. Social Media Celebrity champion the cause of a nobody in a similar situation?

  7. I think it is appropriate for someone to raise a specific problem without proposing a general solution–it is up to legislators or a firm to do that. So the United Airlines guitar or the Dell lemon computer problems were both useful to raise and resulted in a healthy wake-up call for the firms. In each case there was a real problem and existing channels were accessed without satisfaction. What is a problem in my view is the false or distorted stories that might be offered my mistake or sometimes maliciously. They can damage a brand reputation undeservedly. It is tough one to combat but the social media world has some ability and responsibility to deal with it.

  8. You have a good point that public complaining on social media channels has a tendency to turn into rants for the good of the complainers reputation. But what I think will make the real difference in the end is whether a brand (or company) is having great customer service or not, using all channels they have available. If they haven’t, then they’ll get a lot of public complaints, because it is fun for some to annoy them, or people get so frustrated with the service that they lash out in public. In the Baltics we have an airline (@air_baltic) that is really good in responding to complaints online. As in really good. So when there is a complaint, they handle it superbly. Also through their other channels. In the end, their Twitter timeline and FB wall are only sporadically mentioning complaints and solutions. Because only a few people complain (or ask questions, which is another story), and only part of them use twitter and facebook as a genuine communication channel with the brand.
    Shortly about the questions: that would be valuably for all customers, no? To ask them publicly?

  9. Any gripe by a customer – online, offline, inside, outside – is an opportunity for the brand to make things better. We – the consumers, customers, clients – are not here to watch over the rights of or to be fair to brands. Brands want to sell us something and the risk they take is that they may end up critisized, fairly or unfairly. No-one can put the genie back in the lamp: People now have a bigger audience than the ordinary 10 or 12 that unhappy customers usually told about their bad experience. And yes, the exchange of comments (between unhappy customer and brand) is boring. Solution: Stop following them. I don’t see any of this as having anything to do with consumer advocacy.

  10. Thanks for an interesting post!
    I’m curious you take on this from a businesses perspective. For any ‘brand’, a simple twitter search of their name as a hashtag provides them with a real time survey of public perception – invaluable for aligning their product to their customers need. And its free so its available to all companies equally. People willing to be outspoken (to a degree, of course) about their honest review of a brand provide that brand a very valuable business tool, inevitably making their brand experience better.

  11. I actually never thought people, “celebrity” or not, complained to brands for some sort of greater good. I am aware 99% of the situations fall into the “personal benefit” situation, I fully agree it can become a problem if brands start considering that common practice, forgetting to implement standard measure to better deal with incidents and not relying solely on “special happenings” like people ranting in social media channels.
    Brands themselves aren’t making things easy in first place, some of them offer traditional customer service which is something to be sadly laughed at, with people who aren’t remotely prepared to deal with your situation, and leaving you really not many options.
    What I often do is publicly praising especially good situations (I have an interview post in the works celebrating a good customer service situation happened to me not long ago) and try to avoid public outcries even if it can get really tempting.

  12. Hey Mitch,
    Nice post, here’s my case study. I had very bad customer service last year, and after numerous (offline) attempts to get some recourse, I had to take it online.
    I printed out a copy of this post, and mailed it using regular snail mail to Europcar’s head office, and e-mailed a copy too. Five days later they compensated me for the mistaken billing.
    On this occasion, it was about me. I don’t think it’s about being a selfish pig, more about the unjustness of some companies who only bother to reply to customers once they have been held accountable in public.

  13. Those are the great examples: the ones where the brand’s digital footprint isn’t littered with customer service complaints/resolutions, but rather a healthy balance of information and being helpful.

  14. All individuals have a right to complain. The challenge is not there. The challenge is when these individual’s leverage their own network to threaten a brand to action. It’s akin to the, “do you know who I am?” question. I’ve read many emails by angry customers that have lines like, “my brother has 25,000 followers on Twitter, so if this doesn’t get fixed to my liking, I’m going there.” That’s a whole different world… and yes, that’s a whole different type of consumer advocacy.

  15. No doubt. There is value on both sides. I’m more concerned with those individuals using their network to hold a brand hostage… with threats. I wonder how these networks of those people feel. I know that I don’t like – especially when this is not the social contract that I have with the person’s Blog or Twitter feed.

  16. Again, I have no issue with customer’s taking their complaints online. I take issue with the leverage of the community. A community which – for the most part -has not agreed to be a part of this.

  17. I often see these rants/complaints veiled in a “it’s not just about me, it’s about everybody,” type of veneer when – in the end – it is ultimately about that one individual.
    Have the “United Breaks Guitars” folks helped out anyone else with damaged gear?

  18. Complaining for the sake of complaining is an approach used by young children to receive adult attention. It may work briefly until the adults catch on and begin tuning them out. I think that the same fate will come to those adults who complain for the sake of complaining in social media. While people might initially regard them as influential whistle blowers with a finger on the pulse of big business, they will eventually begin seeing them for what they really are; those kids who threw supermarket temper tantrums and never grew up. In the meanwhile, it is important for businesses to have a strategy to deal with such people, because they will inevitably come around in each generation. I think a good solution is to have separate accounts devoted specifically to customer service where customer issues are dealt with through DM’s or @replies. After initial contact is made through social media, it might be good idea to move the resolution offline to deal with the person more directly. However, I don’t know if there will ever be a perfect solution for business to deal with these sorts of people. Perhaps it will take a village of all of us to teach them proper manners.

  19. Mitch, Thou protest too much (uncharacteristically verbose). You never have to persuade me on this and related subjects authored by you whom in our home is clearly Known, Liked, and Trusted. You and occasionally, Seth Godin, justifiably take on customer services issues. You both employ TSJ (Taste, Style, and Judgment) in all you do and say and rarely if ever miss. Another approach is to share stories about when you foster positive customer service. My wife calls it smoozing. I think it is trying to make up for the fact that “bad news is at its destination while good news is still putting on its boots,” Anon!
    Finally it takes very little effort to carp and far more thought and civility to write from the heart, find a stamp = correct postage amount and actually “ship it.” Results? Usually in excess of expectations; mine that is. sQs Delray Beach FL – Career trainer outlier! PS – When a help desk person excels I ask to speak to the supervisor or the supervisor’s e-mail address. Again the response is invariably positive and authentic. ss

  20. I understand your well intentioned hesitation. I agree that online clout can be abused. At the same time, in the long run it may foster consumer advocacy if you do take the deviance public. If your community is built around your personal brand then ‘abuse of online clout’ is a non-issue. Your community knows you well enough. If you were a constant complainer, your community would probably call you out on it too. In fact, I think many of us would even ask you if you tried contacting the brand and want to know if you have spent enough effort at resolving the issue BEFORE taking it online.
    In the equation between brands and individuals, the latter have always been the under-dog. Giving the long suffering under-dog a voice does recalibrate the balance…and about time.

  21. Before social media, people threw their weight around and never asked permission of their fans, followers, supporters whether they had the right to do so. A celebrity wants a better on the plane, a politician wants media coverage…they throw their weight around to get those and don’t ask their fans permission. Now a “nobody” can do that, too, if they (or their brother) happens to have 25,000 followers. Why is this different?

  22. It’s a little bit different because if you are that individual, you should be aware that by throwing your weight around you be either taking advantage of that community or diminishing the value of it. Both of those are dangerous and slippery slopes to go down.

  23. I do like it when a brand asks an individual to please follow them so they can DM them and figure out a solution. All too often the individuals want to keep it “public” so they push things further. I never understood that.
    We should also acknowledge that most people are acting in good faith and are clearly frustrated. I take issue with those who want a “better” solution just because they’re kind of a big deal on Twitter.

  24. Mitch, Forgive me. I should have acknowledged your point up front. In conclusion this thought. You are in my view like Seth able to “nuance” your posit without appearing to throw your “weight” around. You become even more authentic by sharing ups as well as downs in your day to day commerce. Further you don’t have to actually mention the name of the organization. Correct in private and praise in public. Lettuce hear and see by name brand positive experiences you have had and if we, your followers, think you are pandering that’s our problem, not yours. Nuff said.

  25. As a passionate customer experience consultant, you have captured my attention with some very good dialogue and caused me to think…stop that! It will be extremely interesting to see the impact social media has on the communication that takes place between consumer and company. It used to be that 1 of every 26 complaints get heard. I would be fascinated to see what that number will be in five years. My sense is that it may increase a small bit but not be altered a great deal. Social media gives people a voice, however, as has been pointed out here when motivated enough we have always had that opportunity. Mitch, you frequently refer to human nature and I think this is another instance where we will see it rein as a force to control online consumer complaints as it has done offline for decades. Cheers!

  26. The number of complaints being heard should jump up a lot more than a “small bit.” From the major brands, I am engaged with, they believe that they have to respond to all publicly stated complaints. Let’s see how this pans out.

Comments are closed.