Customer Service as a Spectator Sport Is About to End

6 minute read

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 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

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at