Why Companies Should Respond When Twitter Rage Spikes

Clamming up could make things worse.
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When a brand slips up, people are more than eager to vent about it on social media, and it’s natural for companies to worry about these gripes going viral.

A new study finds that once a business responds to a specific grievance on Twitter, it could also open the floodgates to more criticism. But that doesn't mean brands should clam up when an issue arises. Twitter can be a helpful tool for companies hoping to regain the trust of unhappy patrons, and responding to customers on public forums is better than not responding at all. In fact, reaching out can greatly improve the way people think about a company.

"It’s still worthwhile to respond to complaints, because the net effect is still effective. [People] are more likely to complain because they expect the company will help [them] more,” study co-author Liye Ma, a professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, told The Huffington Post.

The study, published in the journal Marketing Science, a branch of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences, focused on customers’ perceptions of companies and how the relationship changes over time. The researchers analyzed Twitter complaint data about everything from products to sales staff and customer service to determine underlying relationships between companies and customers.

Angry tweets don’t necessarily mean that a company has poor customer service via social media, according to the researchers, who caution that these complaints can obscure real results.

Ma proposed a hypothetical situation: A company sees 10 complaints and responds to all, making all 10 customers happy. But within a few weeks, 3 complaints resurface, leading the company to believe that its customer service is only 70 percent effective. Rather, the new complaints could mean that “people still have a positive view of the company but are just a bit more chatty, or might have a smaller complaint,” Ma said.

He describes this as the squeaky wheel effect, when the loudest complaints are the ones most likely to draw attention on the issue.

“It will make you underestimate how important service intervention is,” Ma said.

Past research has shown that customers appreciate it when the brands they buy from address them directly on Twitter. A Harvard Business Review study earlier this year identified American Airlines, Bank of America and Kraft as being some of the most empathetic companies on Twitter. (Empathy in this case meant providing reassurance, authenticity and emotional connection to customers.)

Ma's study suggests that tweeters could also be influenced to tweet about a brand when they see other people tweeting about it -- for better or worse. Sometimes, an unhappy customer who sees others compliment a company is prompted to insert his own differing experience and tweet a complaint. In other cases, customers who have positive feelings about a company and see their friends praise it are more likely to jump in and add their own approval.

In addition, the study suggests that companies should value improving long-term customer perceptions, rather than focus on complaints from users who have a large Twitter following. Ma emphasized that complaints on Twitter will generally self-stabilize with time.

“Social media is a relatively new channel for companies and customers to interact,” Ma said. “A lot of questions are open. We tried to show there’s a way to recover customers’ perceptions when you interact with them on Twitter.”