News at Smith

Beware of Twitter’s Squeaky Wheel Trap

About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

Apr 20, 2016


Twitter can be a brutal world for customer service workers. Complaints about companies are not just public but often harsh: “Sitting on the Tarmac at DFW waiting for a gate! Late again #americanairlines.”

All companies take virtual punches, and they have to decide how to respond. New research by Liye Ma, assistant professor of marketing, finds that intervening to solve the problems of people who complain on Twitter is a double-edged sword: It improves customers’ relationship with the firm but also makes them more likely to complain in the future (relative to others with similar attitude to the firm who have not complained).

The net effect of intervening is positive, even looking just at complaints, but managers need to be aware of this dynamic, Ma says, lest they underestimate the effects of customer service interventions.

“You need to recognize the squeaky wheel effect,” Ma says. “Part of that means realizing the goal when you help consumers is not to stop complaints. It is to improve the customer relationship.”

Ma and his co-authors, whose work appeared in Marketing Science, had access to the data that a Fortune 500 telecommunications firm used to monitor customer sentiment on Twitter. The researchers studied a sample of 714 customers, weighted toward active Tweeters, analyzing their remarks and the firms service interventions from February through December 2010.

The customers could be characterized as negative, positive or neutral toward the company, and their state of mind could fluctuate over time.

All things being equal, the odds of future complaints rose after a company responded to a complaint. But responses to complaints could also shift people from the “negative” category into feeling warmly toward a company — which, independently, reduces complaints. And creating positive feelings, Ma says, is the more important goal that managers need to keep in mind. /CS/