NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In January 2009, a disgruntled JetBlue customer was slapped with a $50 fee for checking a box containing a fold-up bicycle, clothes and some cheese. The box met the height and weight requirements to keep it from warranting a baggage fee, but JetBlue's policy for checking a bicycle, no matter the size, called for a $50 charge.
The angry passenger called the airline's customer service center but was repeatedly told it was company policy and that no exceptions would be made. After getting back to Portland, Ore., he took his fight public in a blog post on the Bicycle Transportation Alliance's website.
Then it was picked up by Twitter.
Within three days JetBlue called the cyclist back to tell him the $50 charge had been reversed and that it was changing its policy. "I have a great deal of respect for a company that is capable of recognizing an error and working quickly to fix it," wrote the cyclist. The resolution of the saga was picked up in the bike blogosphere and Consumerist.
Not every tweet, blog post or Facebook status update involving a complaint about a company is going to generate this type of reaction, though it's fast becoming the norm thanks to leaders in social-media responsiveness such as JetBlue, Virgin America, Comcast, UPS and Southwest. "We find customers are a bit surprised that we were interested and we paid attention," said Debbie Curtis-Magley, PR manager at UPS. "It gives people a sense of not just talking to a big corporation but individuals."
But magically resolving complaints broadcast to the world by social media raises a question: By rewarding complainers with lightning-fast responsiveness, are marketers training consumers to publicly flog them rather than take the discreet and often-frustrating route of calling customer service? Or, stated in Twitter terms, @webwhiners vs. #phonetreefail?
Pete Blackshaw, exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000," thinks so. "The consumer sees two completely different faces, and ultimately that kills credibility, erodes equity and more."
Jenni Moyer, senior director-corporate communications at Comcast, said that the consumers that are communicating with online do so mainly because they aren't the type to pick up the phone in the first place. "Some of these folks are the type who would not pick up the phone to begin with. We try to communicate with them in the manner which they most prefer. The vast majority of our customers communicate with us via more traditional channels like phone and e-mail."
Comcast, in fact, is often regarded as a good illustration of a company joining the online conversation to manage customer service, a practice that Ms. Moyer dates back to 2007. Some of those initial conversations were far from positive, as evidenced by Ad Age Editor at Large Bob Garfield's self-professed "jihad" with his now defunct "Comcast Must Die" blog.
Things have changed a lot since then at the country's largest cable provider which began tweeting in 2008 to resolve customer complaints in 140 characters or less. "In 2009 we saw an increase of 9.3% in our American Customer Satisfaction Index," she said. "We made overall improvements in all categories but most notably in the customer-service category, the biggest driver of satisfaction, and they talked about our efforts in the social-media space helping to improve satisfaction and perception."
Marty St. George, senior VP-marketing and commercial strategy for JetBlue, said the airline finds it more efficient to deal with complaints through Twitter versus having someone contact its call center. The efficiency also lends itself to consumers, he said. "Think about the mechanics of getting the 800-number, getting on the phone, talking to the person and getting to the right customer-service person," Mr. St. George said. "From a cost perspective, one person on a Twitter desk can handle four of five people at once versus a bank of representatives on phones dealing with one customer at a time."
Even so, he said, "we don't consider our Twitter account to be a customer-service channel; we like to think of it as an information booth to effectively process and redirect customer to the best resources available. We will always do what we can to better serve each and every customer, regardless of the way they approach us (or their number of followers)."
Still, it simply makes sense that a prominent person -- or a very influential one -- on Twitter might get a faster response than one who doesn't.
Porter Gale, VP marketing of Virgin America, who recently helped a customer book tickets after seeing them tweet about having trouble finding a flight, does not buy the argument that being responsive via social media encourages online grousing. "We have the same guest-service protocol for issues on social media as we do via phone and e-mail, meaning that if you have a real customer-service issue, our social-media team is direct messaging the customer and then connecting them through our normal guest-service channels."
Mr. Blackshaw, however, maintains that there is "a massive 'conversational divide' emerging right now between marketing and operations, aggravated by social media. Marketers are setting sky-high expectations with consumers about listening, engagement, and the value of feedback -- often in the name of quick-set-up Twitter accounts and Facebook fan pages -- while the operations folks who staff call centers or manage internal CRM systems are begging for scraps."
Maybe rather than beg they should tweet.