Have companies stopped listening to us online?


If you haven’t seen the stories about the “miracle” of social media — particularly Twitter — and how real-time social media platforms can lead to superior customer service, you won’t have to look far. Or wait long.

Just give it a few days, and yet another uncritical story about social media will pop up on your favorite newsreader.

I’ve written at least one fawning story about Twitter. Seems like the thing to do on a slow news day.

But here’s a truth companies would rather you not know: Lately, their responses have become a little scripted — if not tone-deaf. And there’s a good reason for it. With gazillions of people on Twitter and Facebook, and staffs of only a few people answering via social media, they’re hopelessly outnumbered.

I should know. I call out companies via social media when I post a story, mostly as a courtesy. The answers can be revealing.

Consider my recent experience with Verizon Wireless. I recently posted a “problem solved” story about a reader who moved and was trying to cancel her wireless service.

Here’s my tweet:

@Verizonwireless promised it wouldn’t charge an early termination fee, but it did

I included a link to the story.

To which Verizon responded:

@VZWSupport 24h
@elliottdotorg I totally understand your concern! Let’s take a closer look at what happened. DM me so I can further assist.

DM stands for “Direct Message.”

Obviously, Verizon hadn’t bothered to read the story. If it had, it would know that the problem had indeed been solved after I got involved.

The story was the lead on my site all day. It included a marginally-related poll about the reliability of Verizon’s network. That afternoon, I decided to Tweet the results.

Does @Verizonwireless offer the most reliable network? 56% say “no”

Again, I included a link to the story. The response from Verizon:

VZW Support ‏@VZWSupport 17h
@elliottdotorg That’s not what I’ve heard Christopher. We’re ready to show you we offer the most reliable network

It included a link to a promotional page on the Verizon site, extolling the virtues of its ubiquitous network.

Did the Verizon rep responding to my Tweets bother to follow any of the links, or was that person simply pasting a prewritten response? Was it even a person?

Well, I’ve started to wonder. With all of the consumer “experts” advising their readers to abandon the phone, the U.S. Postal Service, the in-person negotiation, in favor of social media, it was only a matter of time before the process became automated, at least from the company’s point of view.

I remember a 2012 visit to Delta’s social media lab, in which I learned several interesting facts. They do, in fact, prioritize Twitter responses, replying to their elites more quickly (and they know who you are because they match your Twitter account to your Medallion account.) Back then, they were committed to responding to every inbound tweet, but I know from firsthand experience that they no longer do that.

Delta has given me responses very similar to Verizon when I called it out. So has virtually every other airline, hotel, car rental company. All they had to do is follow the link to know that I’m not a customer with a complaint, but a consumer advocate trying to assist one of the passengers they neglected to take care of.

All of which brings me to the truth that big companies don’t want you to know, but that I do. Social media — whether it’s Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus — is no different from the phone or postal service. It’s just another channel, and companies are busy figuring out a way to make you think you’re getting a personal response when, in fact, you’re receiving a form tweet.

What’s wrong with that? If you’re a company, absolutely nothing. The MBAs are trying to create efficiencies, and it makes absolutely no sense to have hundreds of employees on Facebook, offering personal replies to every unhappy client.

But it undermines what we believe about social media: that it’s a personal connection to a big company. It gives customers false hope that their feedback is being heard by a real person, and instead is being handed over to an algorithm that calculates your value to the company and then responds accordingly.

We deserve better.

Have companies stopped listening to us via social media?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • $16635417

    I recently took to social media as a last resort after phone calls, online chats and emails failed to even address my concerns properly…let alone bring about a resolution.

    After a reply and a DM, I was put in touch with a customer service rep who understood my concerns and resolved the issue quickly and to my satisfaction.

    Simply based on my experience, I would have to vote “no” as it did finally make the company listen to me. I also received tweets from their competitors offering the world for me to switch my business to them. I was able to leverage those offers into getting a better resolution as well.

  • TonyA_says

    Never liked social media. Too many attention seekers, cry babies and liars.

  • Common sense

    Social media is too often used by people who can’t be bothered to use the usual customer service routes and just want their problem dealt with NOW NOW NOW.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I agree, there’s a lot of that on social media.

  • http://www.jeffkolkerart.com Jeff Kolker

    Have had some good experience though. Placed an order for something online, an addon to software we use at work. Never heard anything, other than the initial thank you email. No receipt, no license number, nothing. I tried calling their support line, no answer, on hold forever. Tried twice, with no luck. Then found the FB page, posted a nice, polite inquiry about my situation, saying I wasn’t sure what to do, and my experience with their phone system. A while later (a day) got a reply referring me to my FB mail box. Got the situation resolved, and I was happy. And replied on their page to my initial post that all was good, which I’m sure made them happy to have that there.

    So, I think BIG companies may be less likely to be “personal” in social media, but for smaller companies (this was) the personal touch seems more often present.

    Just my experience.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    “The truth about social media companies don’t want you to know”

    Headline could use some editing. You’re either talking about “the truth that social media companies don’t want you to know” or you want to tell us “the truth about social media companies.”

  • ORguest

    I’m glad your situation was resolved, but a reply via FB mail seems lame. At that point, someone should have picked up the phone and called you to offer profuse apologies and let you know for sure, first hand, that the problem would be rectified.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Fixed it. Thanks.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Interesting that Delta no longer responds to all tweets, but I’m not surprised. A few years back I was reading an article lauding a company for their Twitter savvy. They had basically one guy who did an awesome job responding to tweets. But as I read the article I could only wonder how long that was going to be feasible. Would the company still be so committed to Twitter that they’d be willing to hire multiple more employees as volume increased?

    The reality is all companies at some point decide that certain communications either get form responses or it’s deemed okay for people to wait a while for a response, be it via email, waiting on hold, etc. Expecting them to totally change this thinking to instantly respond to all social media was never realistic. And, honestly, it’s better in the long run if there is solid and consistent customer service across all channels, not just having everything centered on social media.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Blame goes both ways for that. Some people unfairly try to shame companies in social media. But, then again, many companies also encourage the behavior by doing a much faster and better job responding to customer complaints that come in via social media.

    The same companies who have no problem making customers wait on hold for long periods of time or waiting several days for an email response will instantly respond via Twitter or Facebook. What exactly did they expect would happen?

  • JenniferFinger

    I think companies use social media merely as another marketing channel, not a customer service communications channel. Chris, that’s probably why you got the answers you did-customer service reps for these companies have nothing to do with the social media-it’s strictly for the companies’ advertising.

  • jerryatric

    I do not use social media! Another way for “tracking” or plain spying on you. Add to that the cloying, annoying posts & it really is time wasted.

  • MarkKelling

    It is relatively simple to set up something that would scan through all tweets aimed at your company and have an automatic response generated so it appears that a real person is responding. Have the computer restate the question/complaint so it sounds like a response and add a web link. Voila! Customer happy! Or at least that’s what these companies are being told.

    Nothing different than the phone rep forced to follow a script and respond to specific issues with a canned answer. Companies just want complainers to disappear. Automating social media responses is the wave of the future.

  • Stephen0118

    It’s hard to say whether they’ve all stopped. I flew on a Delta Connection flight from SJC to LAX. We landed on time but we had to wait 20 minutes for our gate. I tweeted that I wish @Delta would adjust their schedules so we wouldn’t have to wait that long on the taxiway. Within a few minutes, @DeltaAssist responded to me, apologizing for the delay.

    After we got to the gate, I thanked him or her and he/she said You’re welcome and to contact him/her I’m the future if I needed help again.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Like everything else in the world, it depends on how you use it. It’s a fabulous way of keeping up with friends and family, seeing pictures of kids, grandkids, etc. These are your real-world friends and family, so if you think their posts are annoying it probably means you have real-life problems with them, as well.

  • jerryatric

    We use Skype to keep in touch. This way we stay in contact with friends & family without all the outside “noise” from people or companies.
    Typical person who thinks his is the only way. Probably feels very entitled in dealings with people & to give his lofty pronouncements on everything & everyone.

  • shannonfla

    I have used social media twice. Once, I contacted Wawa by Facebook messenger to tell them the special coffee I ordered tasted burnt and maybe they should have the staff check it out. I did it to be fast because I wasn’t expecting anything in return. I was pleasantly surprised when the fast response asked me for my mailing address so they could send me a gift card to make up for it. This was a real person responding because we talked about their awesome July 4th parade in Philadelphia. Great!
    After many, many, many poor shipments by Macy’s (expensive dresses with loose beading or missing stones, a blender sent instead of my 6qt mixer and then that order was cancelled 3 times!, size 5 shoes sent instead of size 9 boots), I finally had a fit when an order for a cast iron skillet and a coffee press were shipped together last week. The skillet crushed the coffee press box so we have to return it now to get a new one presentable for a wedding present package. I took photos of the packaging, the damaged box, and the little card indicating by whom it was packed, put it in a collage and posted it to twitter. I got a fast response from Macy’s! I emailed them as they asked but 6 days later I have heard nothing. Following up by email first before I tweet again.
    Edited to note that on previous shipments I had spoken to managers at the store when I returned the damaged dresses or incorrect items, and I literally spent hours on the phone trying to get the right mixer.

  • HM in VA

    I have to disagree with Chris on this one. I think the people behind the social media pages have a little more leeway. After excessive attempts trying to get a hold of various airlines earlier this year, I was finally extremely successful when I sent Twitter messages to both Copa and United asking for help. In both cases it led to resolving issues within 2-3 days after 3-4 months of waiting. I also had a really good experience recently with Netflix and Dominion Virginia Power–in the latter, they even helped me troubleshoot website issues over Twitter!
    I think the key here is to make it nice. Yes, maybe the initial response is a form, but the responses to the DM explanations are more helpful and usually can assist in pointing you to the right person to call or email.

  • MarkKelling

    OK, that’s all nice and everything, but was anything actually done by Delta other than an apology from the cloud?

  • bodega3

    I always feel things should be worded nicely but it has been my recent experience that social media has become regulated with canned comments when you post on FB (I have never used Twitter and admit to not understanding that social media method) I just posted, yesterday, to an airline’s site. I got a quick response and was asked to privately message them, which I did. I got a canned response but didn’t realize it, so I responded to it and got the exact same message as the first one back. My medical coverage is with Blue Shield of CA. I have tried for days to reach them…make that weeks, so I went to their FB page and complained, along with hundreds of other members experiencing the same problem. You get a response but it is to send them a message, to which you get a canned reply and still little to no help comes forward.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Skype is great for your closest friends and family. It will not, however, allow you to see the vacation pictures of your best friend from college or get a look at your second cousin’s new grandchild at any moment of your choosing. I’ve reconnected with people who I’d lost touch with decades ago.

    But, surely, I can’t be the first person to tell you there is a positive side to social media. Have you been rude to all the previous ones as well?

  • $16635417

    I saw that this AM and figured it was just “hyperbole”.

  • jerryatric

    No wonder people around the world dislike Americans. Calling me rude etc., while I express a personal opinion, while minding my own business. You should try it sometimes, but I hold little hope that clods like you never get the concept., but rather feel free in doling out your opinions without even knowing the other party.
    Almost as perverse as the recent conversation with an American woman who insisted that the U.S. government should stop giving “billions” of dollars in aid to Canada! No end to the ignorance that plagues you.

  • SallyLu

    I also thought you were very rude in both of your responses. Joe was merely expressing the opinion that social media may be used to keep in touch with extended family and friends who you may not talk with regularly, and you decided that he was probably “entitled in dealings with people & to give his lofty pronouncements on everything & everyone.” You want to express your opinion, but it seems that you do not want anyone to offer their own opinion that contradicts yours, and when someone does, you call names (clod, no end to the ignorance…).

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    OK, folks. Please be nice to each other.

  • jerryatric

    Who & how I communicate with is my business. PERIOD!
    I don’t need a Joe or you extolling the virtues of any media that you happen to prefer. I have my way of communicating, incl. mail, & personal visits. I still do not believe in Facebook, Twitter & the rest. MY PERSONAL PREFERENCES! You & Joe can use whatever media you choose.

  • MarkKelling

    OK, you stated you use Skype. Joe stated he likes other methods as well. Isn’t that how a conversation is supposed to go? At no point did Joe say using Skype was bad or wrong or insinuate you were less than an intelligent person because you chose that option.

  • http://www.jeffkolkerart.com Jeff Kolker

    I believe in them…they exist. Now to use them or not is the question. But really, you do come off as being rude. Sorry… but you should know that is how it sounds.

  • http://www.jeffkolkerart.com Jeff Kolker

    I don’t expect much. Just that the problem gets fixed. How it gets fixed to me isn’t relevant. And they were very nice about it. I can’t complain. It was all good in the end…

  • jerryatric

    OK in the spirit of goodwill I apologize to Joe & others who thought my replies rude! I obviously misinterpreted his comments, & did not realize my “insensitive” replies. I do hope that this ends it.

  • emanon256

    “Form Tweet” Love It! I voted yes today. I had a company recntly who I asked for help on FaceBook since the only way to contact them was by phone and it didn’t help at all. My FaceBook post on their site was almost immediately deleted, and no help was offered.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I voted no, because it seems the large companies are blowing us off and the smaller companies are not. I had two consecutive horrible phone calls with a certain mail order company (formerly) allied with Sears. I posted on FB and voila! Someone responded with an invitation to email them directly, and I got the problem resolved to my satisfaction.

    CenturyLink? Nope. Email to their “General Support” department is the only way I got any response from those folks. Funny; they bill me for home phone service, but do their darnedest to prevent me from connecting with them by phone. Hmmm. Maybe that’s why my home phone didn’t work for a week? :)

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I consider this site my primary “social media” fix. Some pretty nice folks on here, too.

  • MarkKelling

    My phone stopped working too. I actually had to call their internet service group to get connected with the phone service group (and then they asked if I was calling from the phone that was not working :-). Took 3 weeks to get a service person out. Took all of 45 seconds to fix the issue once he arrived – the last installer had knocked my connection point loose in the connection panel. I even told them exactly what it was because it has happened before exactly the same way. I was just lucky enough to catch the previous one before he got away.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Catching them is tricky – they don’t seem to show up at their “appointments”. Congratulations on doing so – maybe I need to use a different bait? :)

  • MarkKelling

    Maybe the baseball bat I was carrying (for a totally unrelated activity) convinced him to look into the issue? ;-)

  • emanon256

    Same to you :)

  • polexia_rogue

    i vote this up.
    here is the problem- everyone want to jump the line.

    why wait in line? why stay on the phone for hours? or wait days for an email reply?

    just go to twitter or facebook- and if your complaint/story goes viral they will give you what ever you want!

    now there is an massive wave of people who think social media can get them what ever they want. so guess what- now using social media is no longer “jumping the line” the line has been moved and you have to wait your turn in a new space.

    this is why my #1 favorite customer service tool is “live chat” like emailing the company but also getting to speak to a live person! all in one!

  • Nathan Witt

    The difference between social media and, say, a telephone call is – obviously – that the social media post is public. Companies who offer responsive service to social media when they’ve failed to respond to more traditional avenues are just telling us that they care more about their image than their customers. In the long term, it seems like the better route is to find other companies to do business with.

  • bodega3

    Not necessarily. They can delete your post, which two companies have done with mine after they responded. However, on BS of CA, so many people complaint that they don’t keep up on deleting.

  • Stephen0118

    Nothing else as far as I know. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even expect a response from Delta at all.

    I actually had the same thing happen to me a long time ago with US Airways Express at LaGuardia. I wrote to them and they wrote me an apology letter saying that they’ll work it out with the scheduling manager.

  • $16635417

    OK….Because of today’s column, I just tried to comment via social media about an issue with a chain store’s franchise location. After visiting the store and asking about a particular promo, I was told they chose not to honor a corporate promo. I posted my disappointment on the corporate’s social media page. I was advised that it’s up to each franchisee to decide if they will honor a corporate promo and that I should check with the location directly.

    Obviously a canned response because if they had fully read and comprehended my message, they would have realized I found out by visiting the store! Maybe I should change my vote?

  • TonyA_says

    I must be mistaken. I thought a forum like this is prior to (or older than) real-time social media platforms like twitter. Maybe I should have been more precise.

  • TonyA_says

    I do not understand why public shaming is a good thing. And I do agree with you that this is nothing but allowing a wheel to get squeakier.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Nah, I was trying to make a couple of points, in a somewhat humorous way, and evidently failed. Point 1: I may have FB and Twitter accounts, but I don’t use them very much. Point 2: I spend waaaay too much time on this site. :-)

  • shannonfla

    Finally got a response today after I sent another tweet. Offered $30 gift card.