'Twitter is the last of the Big Four to go public.'

Pretoria - A fellow consumer journalist working for The Pioneer Press in Minneapolis, US, earlier this month wrote an interesting piece on the power of the social media when it comes to consumer gripes.

The paper’s “Watchdog”, Debra O’Connor, asked several regional and national “reputation managers” for their view of complaints posted on Facebook and Twitter, versus the companies’ own call centres or websites.

They told her that because businesses realised they couldn’t afford to ignore these public whinges, “tweeps” and posters often ended up in “a preferred position”.

Ken Condren, vice-president of technology at C3/CustomerContactChannels, which tracks social media for Fortune 500 companies, said this was because the staff who were mandated to deal with social media in a company tended to be “at a higher level than regular customer service agents”.

Increasingly, if companies didn’t respond quickly to tweeted complaints, they were perceived as being uncaring, O’Connor reported.

I asked South African mobile communications and technologies commentator Arthur Goldstück for his take on griping via tweet in this country.

Are SA consumers also better off tweeting about poor service than going through the companies’ own customer response channels, in terms of speed and quality of response?

“Generally,” Goldstück said, “consumers tend to get a far more effective response when they raise their complaints on Twitter, in particular, and to a lesser extent, Facebook.”

But if the issue is a serious one, Goldstück says, Facebook can become a far more powerful tool.

This is because people are more ready to take up a cause than simply comment or retweet.

“Having said that, the power of the retweet cannot be underestimated.

“An individual with a small following may have just one follower who is far more influential and willing to retweet or comment, which can result in the complaint going viral.”

As for how major SA companies responded to such tweets, Goldstück said that varied widely.

“Companies with an active social media strategy will try to respond within minutes, to avoid the possibility of a complaint going viral.

“This is the key difference between a social media complaint and a call centre complaint: when it is made through a call centre, it is a solitary, personal expression of dissatisfaction to a single individual, who has the ability to placate the customer in private, or not, as the case may be.”

If the complaint is not handled well, the customer is most likely to try again, Goldstück says, or let it go, which is why there’s none of the sense of urgency of social media responses.

I dealt with a classic example of this scenario recently.

Ashley Moodley of Durban e-mailed me to say that his fiancée, Ramona Harry, had called Simba’s customer care line to complain about the fact that most of the chips in a packet of O’Grady’s she’d bought were burnt.

“She was told she should discard the chips and that somebody from the company’s head office would contact her.”

A week later, when she’d heard nothing, Harry called back and was told to expect a letter – by snail mail – within about 10 days.

“Two weeks after the first complaint she called again and was told that she should receive correspondence within 15 days of the initial complaint.

“Seventeen days have gone by now, and still no response…”

I took up the matter with the company and received a response from general manager Alan Henderson via an external public relations company.

He said Simba cared about how consumers engaged with the brand, and felt this was best done by investing in a customer care line, which was outsourced “to a professional service provider”.

Its “standard operating procedure” was for those who contacted that line to expect “correspondence” – a letter in the post – within 14 days.

Why not e-mail?

I was told that vouchers had to be sent by post to avoid “fraud and duplication”.

But Harry wasn’t after vouchers, she was after a company response. She finally got it, by courier, a staggering two months after that first call in July, after two posted letters apparently failed to arrive.

As for the complaint itself, only two people had complained about that batch of O’Grady’s chips, according to Simba. Chips which “had the appearance” of being burnt caused no harm if eaten, Henderson said.

Despite sophisticated checking systems, sometimes defective products slipped through, he said.

The iconic SA brand has no social media presence, apart from a locked account which the public has no access to.

In Simba’s case, it’s mostly missing out on capitalising on an enormous amount of goodwill, most tweets being of the warm, fuzzy, nostalgic kind.

According to Goldstück, companies which choose to avoid social media are “burying their heads in the sand of customer relations”.

“Our research shows that there are now 2.4 million South Africans using Twitter, and most of them are using it on their phones, while more than double that are using Facebook.

“The Twitter number has doubled in the past year and could double again by the end of next year, which means that social media is becoming increasingly mass market,” he says.

“For some brands, a high proportion of their customers will already be using it. So if they ignore social media, they are ignoring their customers.” - Pretoria News