All publicity is good publicity, right? Wrong. The United Airlines controversy last month showed just how quickly poor crisis management can decimate company shares. And we financial journalists know as soon as we mention our job titles when making a customer complaint, we usually receive a positive outcome, such is the corporate terror triggered by a whiff of bad press.
But now the internet is making it possible for anyone to kick up a stink in a most public fashion. Recent research from comparison site Gocompare found that UK companies have paid out £65 million in compensation to customers who took to social media to complain about services and products. The proportion of British consumers who have aired their grievances online is still relatively small (15 per cent), but the results are pretty effective – 55 per cent say their issue was resolved quickly and more than a quarter received either money off or a goodwill gift.
Surely the number who social-shame companies in this way will rise? It's quick compared to posting a letter and free in comparison to hanging on a premium rate phoneline. It's far easier for those who hate confrontation in person or over the phone (so most Brits) and your complaint could reach an unlimited audience, exposing poor customer service in a way that analogue warriors from years gone by could only dream of.
And boy do companies know it. Social media engagement has become compulsory for even the most traditional brands, with many putting considerable resources and effort into cultivating a cuddly online persona. But you live by the sword and you die by the sword; companies also need dedicated social media accounts to placate The Awkward Squad before they get out of hand and undermine a carefully-nurtured public image.
But where does that leave more traditional customer service channels? What happens to those who can't or don't want to jump on the social-shaming bandwagon?
Not that long ago, I had a WIFI outage at home. As a self-employed journalist, this was not a blip I could afford. I phoned my provider TalkTalk and spoke to a rather impersonal and inflexible chap, who told me that an engineer would be sent out within 72 hours. In the meantime, I just had to sit tight.
It was nearly 24 hours after the problems began, and I became impatient. I turned to Twitter and contacted TalkTalk to tell them I was still waiting for a fix. Within half an hour, I was contacted by someone from the chief executive's office (no less) who told me that an engineer would be sent out as a matter of urgency. Sure enough, someone came within hours and I was back online, with a follow-up courtesy call giving me a contact number for the CEO's office should there be any further problems and the offer to take £15 off my next bill.
Great result, right? Except that recent Ofcom figures confirmed my experience was not the norm. Only half of TalkTalk customers are satisfied with how their complaints are handled (the lowest out of any telecoms/broadband provider). And it used to be the case that TalkTalk could send out an engineer the next working day to fix a problem, but this was downgraded to a two day wait in 2016 (again, the longest wait out of any broadband provider bar Sky).
Ofcom is currently consulting on rules to provide compensation for those who are made to wait more than two days for a repair. But providers like TalkTalk can perform repairs much quicker – but only for those who go online. Seemingly, it's one rule for the Twitter mob and another for the millions who rely on other channels to get their voice heard.
Iona Bain is a financial journalist and founder of youngmoneyblog.co.uk