TIME Social Media

Customer Service as a Spectator Sport Is About to End

Social Media Site Twitter Debuts On The New York Stock Exchange
Bethany Clarke—Getty Images

Changes at Twitter and Facebook could spell the end of public shaming

The battles are as ferocious as they are frequent: companies and customers squaring off in the public spotlight on social media. Among the more high-profile of recent tiffs: actor Seth Rogen going toe-to-toe with Cathay Pacific airline, which had barred his pet Cavalier King Charles Spaniel from boarding a flight.

“I advise everyone to never fly @cathaypacific if possible. They are bad people,” tweeted Rogen to nearly 3 million followers late one night last winter. Though the airline responded quickly and respectfully (“Regret to hear about the disappointment, @Sethrogen …”), a full-scale Twitter rant ensued. Before it was over, Rogen’s tweets were shared thousands of times, ultimately attracting notice from the Washington Post and news sites around the world.

Nor, of course, is this social vitriol limited to celebrities with flying troubles. Customer service in the age of social media has largely become a spectator sport—conducted in public for the delight and disdain of friends and followers. But that may be about to change. New features at both Twitter and Facebook are quietly nudging customer service back behind closed doors. But while companies may be breathing a sigh of relief, the changes pose a new set of challenges all their own.

The rise (and fall) of public customer service

An estimated 67 percent of consumers now tap networks like Twitter and Facebook for customer service. For the socially savvy, the appeal is obvious: Rather than suffering through interminable help lines or waiting patiently for a response via email, users can Tweet instead, in some cases getting instant, personalized attention.

But while taking a company to task in public may feel empowering, the strategy’s effectiveness appears to be waning. Many companies have been numbed into indifference by the sheer volume of messages: It’s not uncommon for major airlines, for example, to receive upward of 10,000 Tweets per day. Unless users have large social followings, or their messages manage to go viral, their complaints may not see prompt redress.

In other cases, an angry post can do more to inflame a situation – or harden a company’s indifference – than resolve the problem. “Threatening, insulting, demeaning are things that will never work,” notes social media consultant Aalap Shah in an interview for CBS. Meanwhile, too much public griping can easily backfire on users. When the Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am erupted on Twitter (not for the first time) after being bumped from an international flight, as many followers panned him as commiserated.

At the same time, not every customer complaint or issue lends itself to being resolved out in the open. “As communications are public by default, asking customers to hand over account numbers and bank details is an obvious no-no,” notes James O’Malley for TechDigest. While Twitter has long had a private channel, known as Direct Messages (or DM), using it hasn’t been easy. Both parties, say an unhappy customer and a company, have needed to mutually follow one another before taking the conversation private. This awkward extra step has meant most customer service has been conducted out in the open.

Small Changes, Big Consequences

Earlier this spring, however, Twitter quietly announced a shakeup. “Communicating with people you may or may not know in real life just got easier,” noted an official blog post. Users can now opt in to receive Direct Messages from anyone, not just people they’ve previously chosen to follow. For businesses, this means more of those complaints about delayed flights, spotty Internet and unexplained bank fees can now be shuffled behind the “DM curtain” – handled privately rather than out in the open for all to see.

Meanwhile, Facebook has opened up its popular Messenger app to businesses, as well. Instead of venting on a brand’s Facebook Page, users can now interact one-on-one with customer service agents from participating companies via the instant messaging app. Announced this spring at Facebook’s f8 developer conference, Messenger Business is still in its early phases, with just a handful of companies participating, including online retailers Zulily and Everland. But Facebook is marketing the tool as a much broader solution for companies seeking to “have personal, real-time conversations” with customers.

The question remains, however: Are consumers – used to leveraging the social shaming power of Twitter and Facebook – willing to take their issues back behind closed doors? The answer will depend largely on how attentive companies show themselves to be. If private social channels end up being another graveyard for customer complaints – with issues shunted into long queues or ignored altogether – they’re unlikely to catch on. On the other hand, if consumers can find quick satisfaction, the days of customer service as a spectator sport may be numbered.

For the moment, however, the fast-shifting social landscape has left many companies scrambling … again. “[It] makes it even easier for consumers to reach out to brands via social,” notes digital media executive Kevin Purcer in Adweek, “[and] customer support teams will need to adjust …” Whereas before social media complaints may have been dispatched on a one-off basis, expectations of heavier volume on new channels have businesses turning to more formal approaches. Trained reps, not to mention specialized software to triage social messages and route issues to proper staff, are in growing demand. (This I can attest to personally: I get more executives reaching out to me at Hootsuite looking for tools to handle social media customer service than for any other request.)

Opting out of the latest customer service craze altogether, meanwhile, is hardly a viable option. Brands that decide not to enable Twitter’s Direct Messages functionality or eschew Facebook Messenger risk alienating customers – giving them more reason than ever to grumble out loud and in public on social media. Commenting in Adweek, marketing executive Dan Swartz of Chicago’s Upshot Agency sums up the predicament: “If a brand decides not to activate their private DM functionality, it sends a bad signal to consumers that they’re not interested in what they have to say.”

Ryan Holmes is CEO of Hootsuite. Follow him @invoker

TIME

Why Walmart Has Big Problem on Its Hands

An employee pulls a forklift with display units for DVD movies at a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. location ahead of Black Friday in Los Angeles, Calif. on Nov. 24, 2014.
Bloomberg—Getty Images An employee pulls a forklift with display units for DVD movies at a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. location ahead of Black Friday in Los Angeles, Calif. on Nov. 24, 2014.

The world's largest retailer is hurting

As gas prices hit multi-year lows a few months ago, many retailers hoped the savings consumers would enjoy would yield a bonanza.

Those hopes have been dashed.

Instead of going out to buy a new polo shirt or barbecue grill, consumers seem to be saving some of what they would have spent on gas to pay other bills.

Walmart, a unit of Wal-Mart Stores on Tuesday joined a chorus of U.S. retailers to report disappointing first quarter sales that has included Macy’s, Gap Inc and Kohl’s.

The retailer reported comparable sales, which includes digital revenue but excludes newly opened or closed stores, rose 1.1%- not bad, but below the 1.5% Wall Street was looking for. On the earnings side, Wal-Mart, which also owns Sam’s Club and Walmart stores abroad, reported a profit of $1.03 per share, down from $1.11 a year ago, and a penny lower than analysts anticipated.

So what happened? Consumers have shifted their budget to other priorities, the company said.

“We know that many of our U.S. customers are using their tax refunds and the extra money from lower gas prices to pay down debt or put it into savings,” Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon said on Tuesday.

“They’re also using these funds for everyday expenses like utilities and groceries. That’s where we can be their destination of choice.”

Indeed, some improvements on the grocery side were a silver lining for the company last quarter. Walmart gets 55% of revenue, or $155 billion last year, from grocery.

Walmart has made it a priority to improve its grocery business, both in terms of assortment, particularly fresh food, and making sure stores are amply stocked to avoid a chronic problem with empty shelves. (It is still grappling with a lot of food spoiling before it can be sold, something that was a drag on profit.) It has also raised its starting wage to increase employee motivation and improve customers service.

Encouragingly for the company, comparable sales at its Neighborhood Markets stores, smaller-sized grocery stores, comparable sales rose 7.9%. And Walmart saw more shoppers come into its stores for the second quarter in a row after nearly two years of declines.

Still, the world’s largest retailer recognized that there is a lot left for it to do to get back to its growth rates of the past. In addition to all its challenges at home, some of its foreign markets are struggling badly: Asda, its U.K. subsidiary, saw like-for-like sales excluding fuel fall 3.3% on the quarter, suggesting that it’s now taking most of the strain in a relentless battle for market share between established players and German-based discounters.

“We know, though, that we’re not where we want to be yet. It will take time to achieve our goals, but we’re fully committed to providing our customers with a shopping experience they can love, and associates who see their efforts leading to broader and better careers,” said Greg Foran, CEO of Walmart U.S., the company’s biggest division with annual sales of $288 billion last year.

MONEY Banks

The Government Will Publish Your Banking Nightmare Story

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will start including the tales behind your banking complaints on its website.

TIME Food Safety

Here’s the Terrifying Truth About Metal Shards in Your Food

Inexpensive food from an industrialized food system has its downsides

Kraft Foods is recalling 242,000 cases of its Macaroni & Cheese product because “metal shards” have been found in some boxes. The recall is getting lots of attention both because of the size of the recall and because the product is so popular. But contamination of food with foreign objects, and metal pieces in particular, happens more often than you might think.

In January, Unibright Foods recalled about 50,000 pounds of prepared meat products that were shipped to seven U.S. states after it was discovered that packages might contain what the Department of Agriculture called “extraneous metal materials.” A restaurant in Illinois discovered a piece of stainless steel wire in one of the sukiyaki beef products.

Last June, Wegmans recalled 6,000 bags of ice sold in its stores across the northeast over a period of more than five months that contained metal pieces from a broken machine part. In that case, contaminated bags of ice were discovered by the company itself, and no shards were found in ice that was actually sold.

In 2012, metal pieces in private-label products made by Bay Valley Foods, resulted in a recall of 74,000 cases of boxed pasta mix products, including macaroni and cheese.

That same year, Kellogg recalled 2.8 million boxes of Bite Size Frosted and Unfrosted Mini-Wheats when “due to the possible presence of fragments of flexible metal mesh from a faulty manufacturing part.” The boxes were distributed across the country.

And those are just a few of the cases of metal contamination over the past few years. Nobody knows exactly how often that particular problem occurs. But while food recalls involving disease-causing agents like E. coli and salmonella get the most attention, recalls due to the contamination of foreign objects are far from rare.

It’s perhaps not so surprising that metal pieces end up in food products, given our industrialized food system. When a piece of machinery breaks off in an electronics factory or an automotive plant, that’s a problem. When it happens in the food chain, that’s downright dangerous, though apparently few deaths or serious injuries have been reported from such contamination.

Some companies are taking steps to reduce the problem, including some highly sophisticated ones like ultrasound and nuclear magnetic resonance techniques. Production lines have been reconfigured and redesigned to minimize the number of parts that have metal moving against metal. |

But as long as we want a the wide variety of inexpensive food we get from our industrialized food system, the hazards of metal and other foreign objects making their way into our food supply will remain.

Read next: How Kraft’s Mac and Cheese Recall Will Affect Its Stock Price

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MONEY Shopping

5 Makeup Names Just As Tasteless As “Underage Red”

Red lipstick on lips
Getty Images

The lipstick that has sparked controversy among Sephora customers doesn't stand alone in its tastelessness

Consumers are voicing outrage on Twitter about a new shade of lipstick sold by Sephora under the Kat Von D label.

Critics have said that the color, called “Underage Red,” sexualizes young girls and trivializes pedophilia. The lipstick line already includes a rosy hue called “Lolita.”

This isn’t the first time Kat Von D has made headlines for a makeup name: Back in 2013, Sephora pulled a lipstick from the line called “Celebutard” after customers complained.

But the brand is not alone in applying objectionable names to cosmetics. MAC also offers a peach lipgloss called “Underage,” and several other companies are guilty of labeling makeup with offensive phrases. Here are five other examples that are—or were—equally terrible. Most, fortunately, seem to have been discontinued.

1. “Miso Happy With This Color” by OPI

Puns that tacitly support an extremely tired stereotype about how Asian people speak? Offensive.

2. “I’m Not Really A Whore” by Naughty Nailz

So much for celebrating womanhood. Even among other polishes named “Dirty Slut,” “Nympho,” “Trophy Wife,” and “Gold Digger,” this one stood out as particularly self-loathing. It doesn’t even have a retro ring to it, like “Brazen Hussy.”

3. “What’s A Tire Jack?” by OPI

According to the copywriter assigned to describe this tire-black color, it “speaks to rule-breaking feminine drama”—whatever that means. What it sounds like is another lame joke about women being bad with tools.

4. “Give Me Moor” by OPI

Clearly whoever named this shade skipped Othello in high school English, or else he or she would have realized it’s in poor taste to name a dark nail polish hue with an old racial slur.

5. “Iris I Was Thinner” by OPI

Just what women and teens need: A reminder that it’s “normal” to hate your body. And let’s not even get into the grammatical error.

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TIME Consumers

This Is the Drink People Are Getting Instead of Coffee

Man on desk holding cup of coffee, close up
Getty Images

Consumption of coffee is declining

Coffee remains by far the most popular caffeine-delivery mechanism in the United States, but tea is making serious headway against its beverage rival, especially among young people.

The National Coffee Association reported Tuesday in its annual survey that coffee consumption overall slipped a bit over the past year. Last year, 61% of respondents said they drank at least one cup of coffee per day. This year, that number is 59%. It’s clearly a trend: the number was 63% in 2013’s survey.

Meanwhile, tea consumption continues to grow, with the total wholesale value of tea sold in the United States reaching $10 billion last year, up fivefold from 1990. The demographic breakdown is stark: a survey by YouGov last month found that among people over 65, 70% prefer coffee to tea. Among people 18 to 29, meanwhile, the two drinks are about even.

Some observers are guessing that the trend toward healthier options, especially among young people, is driving people to tea. There might be some truth to that, given that tea very generally contains less caffeine than coffee, and is largely perceived as the healthier option. But several studies in recent years have indicated that coffee might be much healthier than previously thought — not only not as bad for us as we thought, but actually good for us.

It’s possible to make too much of this trend. The Coffee Association survey points out that more than three-quarters of Americans still drink coffee at least sometimes, and coffee is still wildly popular in general. One indicator: the rising popularity of one-cup coffee machines (like those made by Keurig Green Mountain), which are now owned by more than a quarter of Americans.

Still, ebbing demand is troubling for the coffee growers, where wholesale prices, after a spike last year, have been trending downward. In February, the wholesale price for arabica beans fell by 5.8% from the previous month, part of a downward trend that began in October.

Read next: 7 Reasons to Have a Cup of Green Tea

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TIME Consumers

5 Times Big Business Actually Bowed to Pressure from Consumers

McDonald's golden arches signs
Kristoffer Tripplaar—Alamy

Elephants at the circus are only the latest in a string of victories

Given the power enjoyed by American corporations, it might seem impossible that ordinary people can effect change other than via government force, a.k.a. legislation or the courts. But when sufficient organized pressure from consumers (otherwise known as citizens) is brought to bear, corporations can, and often do, change their ways. That’s especially true when, as in many of these cases, business isn’t great. Here are five recent examples of consumer pressure forcing big business to change its ways:

Antibiotics

This week, McDonald’s announced that it would phase out the use of chickens raised with antibiotics that are used in human medicine—a practiced that has resulted in the rise of drug-resistant “super-bugs.” Meatpacking companies had already been cutting back on the use of the agents, but McDonald’s move is seen as a major step toward ending their use altogether. On Friday, Reuters reported that Costco is, according to Craig Wilson, vice president of food safety, “working towards” ending the sale of meat treated with such “shared use” antibiotics.

Elephants

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus this week said it would stop using elephants in its shows. Animal-rights groups have complained for decades about what they have described as abuse. While the Feld family, which owns the circus, says Ringling Bros. isn’t reacting to critics, that seems like a bit of spin—if it weren’t for those critics, few people would realize how badly elephants are often handled by circuses, such as the use of “bull hooks” to tow them around. And without the critics, fewer laws would have been passed restricting the use of elephants—Los Angeles has prohibited the use of bull-hooks, for example. Such laws have made incorporating elephants into circuses cost-prohibitive.

Artificial ingredients

Nestle last month announced that it would remove artificial colors and flavors from Nestle Crunch and Butterfinger candy bars in the United States. This is a case not so much of pressure from organized groups, but pressure from consumer behavior. U.S. consumers are increasingly buying “natural” and organic products, and Nestle is simply responding to that demand trend. Nestle competitor Mars is also considering removing artificial food dyes from M&Ms. All these products will still be loaded with sugar and fat, but it will be all-“natural” sugar and fat (well, if you consider high fructose corn syrup to be “natural”—but see the next item).

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Despite the fact that there’s no solid indication that high fructose corn syrup is any worse for you than sugar (which is to say, not good for you at all), the substance is a favorite bugaboo of many food activists, some of whom go so far as to call it “poison.” And Big Food has responded, replacing HFCS with “real sugar” in many products. Sometimes, consumer pressure provides companies with new marketing opportunities, and doesn’t really solve any problems.

GMOs

Genetically modified crops present a similar case of possibly misdirected pressure. The GMO issue is far more complicated than HFCS (with GMOs, there are real concerns about seed patents, and how much market power they accrue to corporations like Monsanto, further supporting our highly problematic industrial food system), but the anti-GMO movement, which is partly driven by the unproven assertion that GMOs present direct health risks, has similarly created marketing opportunities for big food companies. Unilever, Chipotle, General Mills, and scores of other companies have begun selling some products based on their being “GMO free.”

TIME Consumers

Why Annoyed Americans Are Signing This Online Petition

Vintage Cell Phone Collection
Jim Golden

People hate robocalls and want them to stop

More than 200,000 Americans have signed a petition asking telecom companies to provide tools for people to block commercial robocalls. Which is about as surprising as 200,000 people signing a petition against legalized murder.

The Consumers Union launched the petition at endrobocalls.com, just a week or so ago. The Federal Trade Commission says that if phone companies want to provide robo-blocking tools, they can. “Americans are fed up with being harassed by robocalls and they are demanding relief,” said Christina Tetreault, staff attorney for Consumers Union, in a statement. “The phone companies need to start listening and provide their customers with effective tools to block unwanted robocalls.”

The Consumers Union is the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

In 2014, the FTC received more than 3 million complaints about robocalls. Many of them (you might have heard from “Rachel from account services”) ran afoul of existing laws and regulations, such as the federal Do Not Call list. And many such calls originate overseas, out of the jurisdiction of U.S. authorities. About the only recourse consumers have is blocking numbers, when that’s possible.

In November, attorneys general from 39 states complained to the Federal Communications Commission, asking why phone companies don’t just block the calls. The phone companies responded that regulations forbade them from doing so. So the FTC sought input from the FTC, which in January said

Last month, though the FTC weighed in with an opinion: call–blocking by telcos is just fine since it would “make a significant dent in the problem of unwanted telephone calls.”

Hence the petition. The telcos have argued that blocking calls would run afoul of “common carrier” rules, which in general require them to accept all traffic, regardless of origin (similar to the concept of net neutrality). The FTC says that as long as customers opt-in and request the feature, telcos “can offer call-blocking services to their consumers without violating their common carriage obligations would be in the best interest of American consumers.”

The FCC is considering whether to issue an order forcing the telcos to make blocking technology available The FTC opinion will surely weigh heavily on that decision. It’s not clear when the decision will be made.

For now, other than making use of the call-clocking features offered by some handsets, consumers can file a complaint with the FCC, which has recently improved its help center.

TIME Consumers

Gas Prices Inch Higher After Months of Decline

Drivers pass by gas prices that are displayed at Valero and 76 gas stations on Feb. 9, 2015 in San Rafael, Calif.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Drivers pass by gas prices that are displayed at Valero and 76 gas stations on Feb. 9, 2015 in San Rafael, Calif.

The steady rise reverses a record 123-day decline that started in September and ended last month

Drivers recently spoiled by falling gasoline prices are now having to deal with a new reality: Higher costs at the pump.

The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline has increased every day for the past 28 days to a national average of $2.30 per gallon, according to AAA. The steady rise reverses a record 123-day decline that started in September and ended last month with fuel costs reaching a five-year low of $2.03.

A major drop-off in worldwide oil prices drove the four-month long decline. Global oil oversupply cut oil prices by more than half between last summer and the beginning of 2015, but oil prices have slowly rebounded in recent weeks and the price most drivers pay at the pump has risen accordingly.

After slipping below $45 in January, the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude oil has since climbed by more than 10%. Brent crude topped the $60-per barrel mark earlier this month, but dipped slightly Monday to $58.90.

AAA also notes that fuel prices tend to rise at this time of year due to the fact that seasonal maintenance typically happening at oil and gas refineries tends to put a drag on fuel production.

U.S. motorists are still paying $1.11 less per gallon on average than they were at this point last year. The largest year-over-year savings gap experienced in recent months was $1.25 per gallon. Drivers in Utah and Idaho are currently seeing the lowest price at the pump with an average of $1.95 per gallon in those states. Hawaii, which tends to see the highest gas prices, is the only state where the average price for regular unleaded gas is more than $3, with that state’s residents currently paying $3.04 per gallon.

California is also seeing higher-than-average prices at $2.95 per gallon, while motorists in Texas are paying $2.12 per gallon.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

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