A Look At Life

10th April 2015

140 Characters – A Little Bird Told Me…

Jennifer Lipman

We’d had the holiday booked for months. Accommodation sorted, sightseeing plans set, bags packed. And then the storm hit. Literally. We were heading for New York in what turned out to be the week of Superstorm Sandy, and all flights were cancelled.

Naturally, we were straight on the phone to the airline – as was everybody else. So, while sitting on hold to the sound of unbearable musak for what seemed like days, I tapped out a tweet to Delta. Within minutes, I had a reply, and not an automated one, or one from a call centre robot, but a response from an actual human. After some back and forth, we reached a solution: rebooked on later flights free of charge. No fuss, problem solved. Had I relied on the phone, I’m almost certain we’d never have reached the Big Apple.

In the two years since, more and more companies have jumped on the social media bandwagon, which is great news for you and me. For the first time we – the customers – have the upper hand, with official figures this time last year showing that 81% of large businesses use social networks, many of them to answer questions on an official Facebook page or respond to tweets from disgruntled customers.

Despite what they say, it’s not really about getting to know the people who shop in their outlets or buy their products; ultimately, of course, it’s about reputation. A string of critical tweets or angry posts on Facebook can damage this – and send profits tumbling. Which means they want to do everything they can to respond to us, including helping to resolve issues. That means we no longer have to settle for poor customer service, because we finally have a way of letting the world – not just the company – know when something’s gone wrong.

And, as I’ve learned, it pays off to mouth off online. Aside from the flights, I’ve had online orders tracked down via social media (thanks H&M), challenged my phone operator over an inability to send texts, and confirmed film times, check-in policies and special offers – all within Twitter’s parameter of 140 characters. Certainly, I could do many of those things by using Google, or by ringing up – but who wouldn’t want to save time and hassle? When you’re on-the-go, out-of-hours or just busy, this approach is far easier.

When I discovered a photobook I’d ordered as a gift wasn’t coming in time, I tweeted the company pointing out that I’d paid for speedy dispatch. Clarification came moments later.

I’m hardly the only one doing this. A friend who found a rogue insect in her bag of lettuce tweeted the supermarket and was rewarded with a voucher (although she steered clear of the salad when redeeming it). Another who experienced poor service from a popular takeaway shared this on the chain’s Facebook page and bagged a free meal. Helpfully, response is not about how many followers or friends you have; famous names have an advantage, naturally, but social media is a public platform and the companies know that anyone searching their name online might spot your critical comment.

Sometimes it’s just about function. Following a train company might not avoid delays, but it can prevent you (well, me) from racing to the station only to wait red-faced and angry.

It’s cathartic, too. Faced with a late train and no information, I generally tweet my rage. It doesn’t alter the situation, but being able to flag their failure to the world at least makes me feel I have some power. And if nothing else, the greater the pressure they come under, the greater the incentive for them to step up their game. Equally, it’s nice to highlight the good guys. After a bread-making class, I shared how much I had enjoyed it; a slice of free publicity that cost me nothing.

Once upon a time, we had no recourse when we were treated badly, besides taking our business elsewhere, which isn’t always convenient or possible. These days, we can fight back; tell the world what works and what doesn’t, and get the answers we need when and where we want them.

And while no amount of apologetic tweets from Waitrose can make up for a delivery that comes without the new potatoes you needed for dinner, it’s better than nothing. Just make sure you’re tweeting the right account, though: spare a thought for one John Lewis of Virginia, who spends hours responding to customers asking about new TVs, opening times and Monty the Penguin…

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