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Online Brand Complaints: Accountability or Entitlement?

June 23, 2009

I am a shockingly lazy consumer.

Well, not really, but the Internet can really make me start to feel that way. I don’t, for the most part, blog/comment on/tweet about my brand experiences. I rarely am so moved in any direction that I’m motivated to contact customer service. Before the dawn of the web (or at least the dawn of a truly interactive web), I can think of only one time when I actually bothered to go out of my way (in this case to complain): On a flight to Caracas, American Airlines lost — for three (3!) days — my backpack with all of my clothing and camping equipment, basically ruining all of my carefully-laid vacation plans. I had to pay for a hotel in Caracas for two nights and cancel an entire leg of my trip, but never received so much as an apology from AA, let alone any reimbursement for my expense. When I got home, I sent a long, ranting — though very articulate, if I do say so myself — letter to the airline and had a long, rantingย  — a lot less articulate, if I do say so myself — phone call with some random AA customer service rep. And I got exactly nowhere. Not one to make taking on companies for bad service my life’s mission, I ended up letting the whole thing drop. (Though clearly I still have some unresolved issues since I got annoyed just thinking about the whole thing again. Damn you, American Airlines!)

Now with social media, blogs, and even the ability to easily design an entire blog/website dedicated to bashing a company, it seems like it’s become a whole lot easier to take dissatisfaction to a whole new level. Which is why I often feel lazy. Even when I’m really annoyed, I might put out a feeble Tweet vaguely conveying my frustration, but I’m unlikely to do much in the way of wave-making. Partly because, in the end, I feel like I have bigger fish to fry, and partly because I feel weird about closely intertwining my personal identity with complaining — and about a product/service no less. I mean, if I’m going to use space to complain, maybe I should take up things like the toxic swill in my neighborhood (I live near the Gowanus Canal) or advocate for social issues that really matter. There’s something that starts to feel really cheap to me about using my voice and the little online capital I have to complain about not being treated respectfully by a flight attendant or about getting fat on my skinny latte. Obviously, companies are answerable to consumers and they should be held accountable for bad service or shoddy products, but it can start to feel like a lot of entitlement when people make a habit of complaining. And sometimes it feels suspiciously like people are angling for some special treatment — a gift certificate, an upgrade — rather than really venting about something that is a legitimate grievance.

So here’s the real point of this post — a question (and one that I don’t necessarily know the answer to — shocking, I know…):

Where is the line between accountability and entitlement? And how accountable should brands be, especially now that just about anyone can do some damage with a little time and a computer?

I am genuinely curious about the line between using social media, networks and communities:

  • to hold companies accountable for shoddy products and services, misguided marketing campaigns, or offensive or exploitive practices, and
  • to complain incessantly — and very publicly — about the littlest inconveniences, to make unfair and excessive claims in the hope of getting something free.

Thoughts? Anyone, anyone?

4 thoughts on “Online Brand Complaints: Accountability or Entitlement?”

  1. I think we’ll see it matter when companies start realizing that there are two types of social media complainers – those people who have social media followings/blogs/something to say, and those who, if you look at their history, bitch on a daily basis simply for the purpose of bitching. It’ll almost be like a ratings system.

    Delta pissed me off beyond belief last week – I twittered and blogged about it. Anything come of it? Lots of people agreed with me, and we made Delta’s brand 1 billionth of a percent crappier. But does it matter? Not to Delta, who doesn’t bother following up on Facebook/Twitter in the first place. They’ll simply be eliminated. Not because people are complaining for the hell of it, but because they’re not bothering to listen to those customers who actually have something to say.

    End result? Think of it like a ratings system – when the person who rarely complains does in fact complain, you know there’s a problem. When the complainer who always complains does so again, he’s simply that guy everyone ignores.

    I’m tired. That make any sense? ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Provocative piece, Kate. As a corporate flack, I’ve struggled with the same love/hate dilemmas. On the one hand, the community of corporate haters has become a kind of permanent, almost lifestyle pursuit. There are now activist groups whose sole mission is to attack and criticize specific companies. But on the other hand, consumer oriented companies can often make mistakes and then seem impersonal.

    You ever read Consumerist and think, sheesh just give it a rest you damn anti-global hippies? But the dynamic that really gives me pause is when companies have customer dissatisfaction baked into the business model. TimeWarner cable, I’m looking at you. Still, what all those companies — and in your case American Airlines, have in common is a quasi-monopoly on the good or service that’s being sold. There’s simply nothing that improves customer service as quickly and efficiently as good old capitalist competition.

  3. Two great comments–we have such smart readers! ๐Ÿ™‚ Peter, I think your influencer point is really true and that there’s probably some formula we could dream up for the relevance/ validity of any given complaint. And, yes, Ayn Rand, I suppose you’re right that good old-fashioned capitalism should weed out the weak, but it also seems to produce some pretty powerful monopolies that eventually don’t really need to listen to their captive customers. At which point who can blame the little people (or anti-global hippies, as the case may be) for taking to the Internets to try to find a voice?

  4. Great post Kate. I guess I tend to be a tad more vitriolic and frequent than you in relating and complaining about my crappy brand experiences (any cable company, most banks, British Airways and United may know this). I have used twitter mostly to do this – it’s a great instant release valve and sometimes, just sometimes, I get heard. And that’s ultimately the issue here I think. The sheer frustration and impotence that most consumers feel – knowing that even if they manage to navigate the labyrinthine phone tree obstacle courses that most brands offer in the name of ‘improved customer service’ and speak to a human, the chances are it’ll be a human who can only say no (very Little Britain – computer says no).

    But I must give a major shout out here to @comcastbonnie. She saved the day. I was pissing and moaning with my mate Frank O Mahoney in Santa Fe about how Comcast sucked. She instantly replied, listened to my issues and within a week fixed them. I was a convert – transformed from a rabid Comcast hater to their biggest fan. All it took was a little listening – and fixing my problem. I’ll stop – I feel a rant coming on ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Oh, and Peter, stay tuned, just such a sentiment/influence/relevance rater may be appearing at a social media site near you – Very soon ๐Ÿ™‚

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