Rage-tweeting: When angry consumers seek 'revenge' for bad service

More and more people are taking to Twitter and other social media platforms to vent their anger after having bad experiences with a company's service. These public forums are some of the only places where consumers can have real impact with big brands. — Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa

PHILADELPHIA: After spending 45 minutes looking for parking at the Philadelphia International Airport on Thursday, Diana Smith took to Twitter.

Tagging the airport's account, she relayed her experience, writing in part, "I know renovations are coming but parking needs some solutions."

Smith, 55, of Collegeville, Pennsylvania, has found social media to be the most efficient way to get issues resolved, connect with customer service representatives, and provide feedback.

"I'm looking to get their attention, and have my matter resolved quickly," she said. "And have them know how I feel quickly."

Every few months, she reaches out to a company or organization on Twitter or Facebook with polite feedback or questions about a problem.

An increasing number of people are using social media to air their complaints, sometimes with the motivation to get "revenge" on a company, organization, or agency, according to a US study of consumer behavior. Customer problems with goods and services are at an all-time high, doubling since 2020.

In the US, problems with government agencies, such as the DMV, IRS, and transit authorities, have increased the most, tripling since 2020, according to the National Customer Rage Survey, an independent survey of 1,000 people across the country.

About half of those surveyed used social media, an online chat, or email to complain, compared to 5% just three years ago, and those digital options have overtaken the telephone as the primary complaint channel since early 2020, the last time the survey was conducted.

And not everyone is as nice as Smith: The percentage of people who said that they wanted "revenge" – defined in the survey as payback or punishment – has tripled to 9% since 2020, the survey found.

One vengeful behaviour could be "social media shaming," said Scott Broetzmann, president and CEO of Alexandria, Virginia-based Customer Care Measurement & Consulting, which conducts the Rage Survey with the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.

"The motivation for a lot of the postings aren't necessarily built around the negative emotion of revenge," he said. Sometimes, customers simply "wanted to alert other people, so other people don't have the same bad experience."

Generational divides

For some millennials and Gen Z-ers, posting about a negative experience may simply be a product of habit, said Evan Urbania, CEO of Chatterblast, a Philadelphia-based digital communications agency.

If Urbania, for example, got a cold burger at a chain restaurant, the 43-year-old said he'd most likely "forgive them and move on."

"Some digital natives are more likely to post a picture of a sad face, tag the burger, tag the account," he added. "People are showing when they're happy, when they're sad. And they're not afraid to bring the brands into the mix."

And when some companies outsource or completely digitize customer service, or make it more difficult to reach a human on the phone, older generations also get ticked off. They may be more on edge when they do reach a person, Urbania said, or go to social media when they've reached their last straw.

"I will reserve social media for a last resort," said Roy Kessel, 58, of Chicago, who took to Twitter earlier this year after a negative experience at a Philadelphia hotel. "That's not my first step.... That's the point where I've spent an hour on this and I've gotten no response." Social media, he added, "is one of the few places where a consumer against those big brands can have some impact."

Changing customer service

Companies and agencies are juggling the best way to move forward. Customers who complain digitally are generally more satisfied than those who call on the phone, according to the Rage Survey, and digital customer service is cheaper for companies than staffing a call center, Broetzmann said. Yet people also want empathy, an unscripted answer to their problems, and the ability to vent their anger, according to the survey, and those are three things that are difficult to get through a screen.

"It's challenging for many companies and for consumers to figure out how to create authentic experiences of service in a digital environment," Broetzmann said.

The Philadelphia Airport, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), and the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA), which runs the PATCO transit line connecting the city with South Jersey, have seen an increase in customer social-media complaints in recent years, officials said. But they are increasingly tapped into the feedback they receive on these platforms, using them as listening tools.

While DRPA has been monitoring social media 24/7 for nearly a decade, they've recently begun providing more detailed information to customers, showing photos of the exact issue that is delaying a train instead of using canned language such as "track delay," said Christina Maroney, DRPA Director of Strategic Initiatives.

The airport may not respond directly to every tweet or Facebook post, particularly those that are providing general feedback as Smith did, spokesperson Heather Redfern said, but they make changes – such as the addition of water-bottle-filling stations and ongoing bathroom renovations – based on social media chatter.

Passengers used to regularly tweet photos of security lines that appeared to stretch all the way to the parking garage, said Leah Douglas, the airport's director of guest experience. Oftentimes, she added, the tweeter would reply to their own tweet 10 minutes later, noting they were already through security, but the initial photo of a seemingly massive line would still get traction. In response, they changed the layout of the queue, she said, and since then, "we have not seen absolutely one complaint about that checkpoint."

SEPTA has continued employing much of the same social-media monitoring and engagement it has for the past decade, SEPTA's assistant director of customer service James Siler said in a statement.

One recent trend, however, is that "many more social media users are responding to issues or commentary with their own ideological and political views colouring their message," Siler said.

Similar trends are on the national consumer radar, too. For the first time in 20 years, the most recent Rage Survey also measured customer "uncivility," which it defines as "the phenomenon of rude, discourteous and disrespectful customer behaviour stemming from socio-political conflicts between customers and companies/organizations."

The importance of being heard

Smith, the Collegeville woman, first used social media for customer service about five years ago.

Her washing machine, which was under warranty, needed to be repaired, she said, but she couldn't get in touch with anyone at the national company from which she bought it.

"People on the phone, people on email, no one was getting back to me. I tweeted, and they got right back to me," Smith said. "My issue that had taken a month was resolved in a week."

Seldom, she said, does a company not respond – and often they do so within minutes. It's much faster and easier, in her experience, than calling a phone number.

"It makes me feel acknowledged as a consumer. That's the most important thing. Someone is there to listen to you," Smith said. "You're not put on hold. You don't have to go through a series of prompts." – tca/dpa

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