Many customers see social media as a quick way of solving problems that they experienced with their purchases. Yet, research in the airline industry shows that companies are reluctant to handle complaints on that channel.
This is a very short-sighted reaction, because many of those customers that complained on social media, and didn’t get their problem solved via that channel, end up with a bad feeling towards the company. Moreover, it may have a negative impact on potential customers who see the unanswered complaints.
Researchers Jens Hogreve, Nicola Bilstein and Kathrin Hoerner investigated the impact of observing the resolution of social media complaints on observers’ perceptions of service quality, trust in the business, and word of mouth and purchase intentions. The findings from their research were published in the Journal of Service Research, in a paper entitled “Service Recovery on Stage: Effects of Social Media Recovery on Virtually Present Others” (open access version, here).
Hogreve and his colleagues ran a series of experiments, where participants were exposed to a recent customer complaint. In the first experiment, the researchers manipulated whether the complaint had been handled online vs. taken offline, as in this image:
In general, they found that observing the company solve the customer’s complaint on social media led to higher perceptions of service quality, than when the conversation was taken offline. The enhanced service quality perceptions, in turn, led to higher perceptions of trust, and higher intentions to engage in positive word of mouth and to purchase the product. However, when the company did not solve the problem (e.g., did not refund the money), then the reverse happened: this led to reduced perceptions of quality, trust, and word of mouth and purchase intentions.
Does this mean that companies should handle complaints that are likely to result in a successful outcome for the customer, online, and move the others offline?
Not according to the researchers’ second experiment. In that study, the researchers manipulated whether all aspects of handling the complaint were visible vs. some aspects were visible but not others vs. everything happened offline. The results from this experiment suggest that offering some information is better than offering no information at all.
“If service providers are unable to reveal the service recovery result, transparency about the service recovery process helps mitigate the negative effect of [the lack of transparency] and increases [the observers]’ WOM intentions. [Though, not on] purchase intentions…” (p. 430)
“In situations wherein the service providers cannot display information about the service recovery process online, they should offer a visible post about the result because result transparency significantly increases [the observers]’ WOM and purchase intentions.” (p. 430)
That is, “even conditional transparency in service recovery can have positive effects” (p. 430).
In summary, while we would rather customers didn’t have a reason to complain, or that they didn’t use social media to do so, eventually they will. And when customers voice their dissatisfaction on social media, it is important to pay attention, acknowledge their grievance and, as much as possible, try to solve the problem in that channel. It may be uncomfortable, but it will eventually pay off – from both that customer’s point of view, as well as from others’ who may see the exchange later on.