How To Complain On Social Media And Actually Get Heard


Social media has given us all very itchy trigger fingers.

Something goes wrong – the cable guy doesn’t show up, a snowstorm grounds the plane, our order arrives all messed up – and we take to the internet to chastise and share our rage with the world.

The thing is that by virtue of everyone taking that approach, it’s noise, and it has little impact. 

Having been in the trenches on the community side on social media, I’ve dealt with everything from polite requests for assistance and outright frothing-at-the-mouth raging. I’ve also been the person who lost her cool, inexcusably, at someone on the other end of the phone when I had a problem with a utility at home.

So here’s what actually works to get your problem noticed, address, and handled with the utmost of speed.

1. Contact official channels first, directly.

If there’s a support account on Twitter or an email form you have to fill out, do it. Yes, it can be a pain in the ass.

But being willing to play by the system initially is a show of good faith and friendly intent, and it’s much easier to say to someone “I have attempted contact through these official channels and have not received a response” than it is to try and explain why you’re blowing off the systems they’ve worked hard to put in place (whether or not you agree with them.)

2. Be very clear and calm about your issue.

Helpful: “I’m still having trouble with my internet uptime.” or “My order was sent to the wrong address”.

Not helpful: “You suck, JC Penney.”

If you communicate your issue right off the bat in very clear terms, the company can start focusing on that immediately. If you’re throwing epithets around, they’ve first got to go into defensive damage-control mode because now you’re insulting them vs. bringing them a solvable problem.

For the people on the other end of those accounts, that starts them off in a very different place emotionally and professionally. Do yourself the favor of starting on the right foot and stating your issue, succinctly and clearly.

3. Likewise, be clear and calm about your expected resolution.

If you know what you want the company to do to fix the problem, ask. Clearly and calmly.

“I’d like to arrange a credit for my account for the last month of subpar service.” or “I’d like to get a new order shipped out to my correct address ASAP.”

If the online team knows what you’d like, they may be able to solve the problem immediately by dispatching a tech or reissuing an order. If your request is out of their bounds of authority, they’ll know where to go next. If it’s impossible altogether, they’ll know to tell you so and perhaps offer a different solution instead.

4. The conversation is already public if it’s online. Don’t make it a circus.

One of the biggest mistakes I see is people online trying to make sure they draw as much public attention as possible to the issue at hand.

I’ll admit, once you’ve tried and tried and things are horrifically broken, someone’s been hurt, or there are egregious breaches of ethics or something, I can understand taking something to the court of public opinion.

But that should always be your last resort, not your first course of action.

You don’t need to cc: everyone in the world on your tweet or put a “.” before the company handle so everyone makes your conversation a customer service side show. You don’t need to screen shot your emails and post them to Facebook or start lambasting the company on their public page wherever there’s a blank space.

Maybe this comes down to maturity. Or how much our egos love to wield the mighty internet hammer to take someone else down a peg and make others watch us do it to see our power. I’m not really sure.

But what I’ll tell you again from the trenches? That won’t get someone in the position of solving your problem to give you their best.

5. Take it offline.

There are times when the best use of social media is simply to reach out, make contact with a company, and then say “what’s the most efficient way for us to work through this issue?”

They might offer to call you, or exchange emails, or something else that’s faster and less in the spotlight. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Social media is a great mechanism to tap someone on the shoulder and say “hey, I need a hand over here”. To jump the phone queue in some places (though I think that’ll catch up to itself eventually). But it’s not always the best medium in which to actually work the problem to a resolution, especially when you need to start sharing personal information to get things resolved.

Don’t fall in love with the dramatic throw-down on Twitter. If your real aim is to get a different outcome than you have, take it to the backchannel where it likely belongs.

A few things to remember in conclusion: the problem is rarely if ever the fault of the person manning the Twitter account or the Facebook page. They’ve got a job to do, which is to get clear on your problem and get it in the hands of the right person. They probably didn’t create the product, or the system.

Honey definitely catches more flies than vinegar. And if you *must* express your displeasure online and in public because you’re hitting multiple frustrating roadblocks and need someone to take notice, take a lesson from me and use clear language and words to express that, not a raised voice and blue language. It really doesn’t help.

We all want to tell our friends and family to stay away from the companies with whom we’ve had terrible experiences. But again, saying what happened and why it was unacceptable from a place that doesn’t look like a grown-up temper tantrum is going to warrant a lot more consideration from the people you’re hoping to convince.

So that’s my .02 for the day. Civility, even in times of frustration and in the public arena of the web, can still work.

How have you found success getting your problems solved thanks to social media?


  • Meg Tripp

    Because my husband works for a brand that takes their share of knocks on social media — including from our friends — I get really sensitive about how people engage in conflict resolution. The willingness to be polite, to take things offline, to be clear about the resolution you want, to be willing to work with a company… I value all those things because I know how much time and effort community and customer service folks put in to solving problems.

    That said, I totally caved to the “ARGH, WHY ARE YOU BEING JERKS?!?!” response on social media the other day. Maybe I thought it would get a response I hadn’t gotten thus far — though the company is shaky on social media, so their capacity to hear/respond isn’t the best. Maybe I was at the end of my rope after trying to resolve an issue privately and in a civil way, after getting weird, rude responses from customer service people, and no resolution. And I think the fact that my mom — who was the recipient of the lame service that I paid for — was frustrated and mentioned it more than once (along with my dad) put me in “DON’T SCREW WITH MY MOM!” mode… which rarely has a great result.

    My little fit didn’t make a difference, though. The company’s social media response lived up to their customer service, and left me with a big fat zero in the satisfaction column. Radio silence.

    Nothing changed, and all I did was make myself look cranky. In fact, people probably figured that was my only effort to resolve the situation: a bitchy tweet about customer service with an @. And if the company even saw it, it likely made them less inclined to help me.

    Good one, Meg.

    I think I learned a lesson about managing my own temper and expectations — and reminded myself about the respect I want to extend to folks like the dude I married. I’m not wrong to want great service — but I have to be true to my best self in the process of trying to get it.

    Your post drove that home. So, thanks. :D

  • Laura Fitton

    this is so needed Amber, thank you. i honestly think it’s MUCH more effective to tiptoe as quietly and politely as possible.

    i tend to try this: 1. follow their support account and hope that there will be a follow back in a few hours so that i might DM. 2. use @companyhelp to quasi-privately ask them to follow so that i may DM. 3. then DM.

    i have tried hard to avoid the public shaming. even if the company is completely screwing you and continues to, it’s a form of bullying. and two wrongs, well, you know how that one goes. if it gets to that stage, just try to be as kind and fair and clear about the issue and about how the company could do better.

    the other piece that is an important part of being a good social media citizen is to PRAISE companies, and particular individual employees of companies, who are getting it right. if you’re consistently giving credit where credit is due, that’s only going to help your karma if and when the time comes to go public with a problem.

  • Laura Fitton

    oh and, extending your point about the person on the other end of the conversation having little direct power over the issue, to couch the complaints as feedback that the company should have on how some part of the company isn’t working for people in general. eg – “your overseas call center is having some quality issues. i was told x on this date, y on this date and z on this date, none of which ended up being accurate. it seems like you guys would want to know that so that you can address the issue and have fewer customers encountering those kinds of problems” is better than “GAH! your company lied to me 3 times!!!!!”

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