SMITH BRAIN TRUST — Twitter can be a brutal world for customer-service workers, since complaints get aired not just with great vitriol but also very publicly. All companies take virtual punches to the gut, and they have to decide how to respond. "I am so sick of @ATT not working!" "Sitting on the Tarmac at DFW waiting for a gate! Late again #americanairlines."
New research from the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business finds that intervening to help people who complain on Twitter is a double-edged sword. It improves the relationship with the firm but also makes that person more likely to complain in the future (in hopes of getting quick help).
It seems like a Catch-22: The more you help, the more complaints roll in. But understanding the dynamics will lead to better customer service, according to an article co-written by Liye Ma, an assistant professor of marketing at the Smith School, that's forthcoming in Marketing Science.
Because complaints breed complaints, the sheer number of gripes posted to Twitter turns out to be an unreliable measure for how companies are serving their customers, the researchers find.
"You need to recognize the 'squeaky wheel effect,'" Ma says — the notion that consumers learn to use public complaints as a way to get help. "Part of that means realizing that the goal when you help consumers is not to stop complaints. It is to improve the customer relationship."
Instead of simply counting complaints in the Twittersphere — and getting depressed — companies can calculate consumers' overall attitude toward the firm by analyzing the tenor of posts over a longer period.
According to those deeper customer-attitude measures, outlined in the article, helping everyone who complains remains a solid customer-service strategy; attitudes improve even as complaints keep rolling in. "If you don't recognize the squeaky wheel effect, you will underestimate the effect of your service interventions," Ma says.
The authors of the article — besides Ma they include Baohong Sun, of Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business; and Sunder Kekre, of Carnegie Mellon — had access to the data that a Fortune 500 telecommunications firm used to monitor customer sentiment on Twitter. The researchers zeroed in on 714 customers who were active online, analyzing their tweets from February through December 2010.
As you might expect, behavior on Twitter, a super-social medium, was shaped by more than good or bad experiences with a company. Customers who were negatively oriented toward a company would post negatively in response to other people's compliments, for instance. Neutral customers might voice fewer beefs if their followers held a positive view of the company.
Marketing managers often worry that complaints will turn viral if they are permitted to rise in number, but the researchers found little evidence of such an effect.
Although the study found that it makes sense to help every Tweeter with a problem, that's often just not possible. When resources are constrained, Ma says, companies should help "people on the margins" — those who the data suggest could be moved out of a negative into a neutral state, for instance. Even if you know they'll complain again, down the road.
"The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease — An Empirical Analysis of Customer Voice and Firm Intervention on Twitter," by Liye Ma, Baohong Sun and Sunder Kekre, is forthcoming from Marketing Science.