Listening is Half the Battle

Matt Popkes
VP of Strategy

Some brands do it well. Some brands are embarrassingly awful at it. Some brands don’t even try to do it. Regardless, everyone is watching.

For better or worse, social media has ushered in a golden age of consumer access directly to brands. That means that whether it’s through Facebook, Twitter or this week’s flavor of the week social channel, consumers are able to say whatever they want, positive or negative, directly to and about a brand, with an audience of tens to hundreds of thousands listening and ready to chime in. How brands respond (or don’t) can speak volumes and lead down a path towards widespread praise or PR disasters.
Let’s take a look at some of the good, bad and ugly in consumer-to-brand social interactions and see what we can learn to manage these opportunities most effectively. Many brands have the monumental challenge of monitoring multiple social feeds, 24-hours a day, seven days a week. For the sake of keeping this post at a readable length, we’ll focus on examples and conversations on Twitter specifically.


My Dad has always been inclined to point out to me when he’s delivering one of those “important lessons of life”, of which I’ve learned many over the last three decades. One that has always stuck out to me is the notion that ignoring a problem does not make it go away. Clearly, there are a few brands that need to hire my Dad on retainer for important life lessons (he’s also good with various building tips, teaching how to drive stick and embarrassing you publicly).
One of social media’s greatest gifts to brands is the ability for direct, one-to-one communication between brand and consumer. Whether it’s glowing compliments or bitter complaints, the worst thing you can do is ignore the conversation. Let’s take a look at some recent Twitter banter from embattled brands and see how they respond…





In each case, the brands were unresponsive to the Twitter users above. These posts are the equivalent of the customer walking into your retail location, restaurant or sales counter and complaining directly to the brand’s face… only in these cases, there’s a few thousand people listening. What the brand says, or just as importantly, doesn’t say, is a critical piece of customer service expectations now levied on social media.
In the examples above, what was the public facing response from the brand? Nothing. Silence.
I assume if a customer complained directly to your face, you wouldn’t stand there silently, pretending it wasn’t happening. My Dad would be quite disappointed if you did.


What could be worse than a customer’s very public complaint going unanswered? How about when a competitor brand swoops in to save the day? It happens…

Damn, AT&T. You sneaky.

It’s the attractive woman at the bar, who comments about being angry with her boyfriend, and before you know it, every popped-collared creeper within earshot is clamoring to buy her a drink.

Advice to brands: Don’t let the creeper buy your girlfriend a drink.


I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but social media moves pretty quickly, not only as a communication tool but also as a go-to resource of real-time news and information for an entire generation. Trends come and go in hours, if not minutes. Rapid-fire communication is happening at lightning speed, on a massive scale and because of this, brands need to be set up to react and respond quickly. So, all that being said, what’s wrong with this picture?

@keithwasser sorry for the late response on this just checking if your issues were addressed — ComcastCamille (@Comcastcamille) January 13, 2015



I believe the proper term here is “Facepalm”. Imagine you walked into your local Comcast storefront or called their customer service line (best of luck to you), asked your question and waited patiently for seven days, until they said, “Oh, sorry for the wait, did anyone ever end up helping you?”. Poor Keith. I sure hope he got his remote working again. In the case of Comcast, the reality is that they do have individual customer service reps tasked with responding to customer issues on social channels. But, when this is the customer service experience for some customers, what’s the point? When you respond is just as important as how you respond.


As I was parsing through the Twitter hate, I thought that maybe, rather than responding on the comment thread, these brands were opting for a less public conversation and direct messaging the unhappy Tweeter. So, I did an experiment with a few brands America seems to love to hate…





The result? Crickets.

Now, I’m aware that my isolated examples can’t speak to the broad social media strategies of these brands as I’m sure it’s hard to keep up with every single social interaction, good or bad. That said, I certainly gave them a golden opportunity to address an issue, start a conversation or even win my business! While some of my Twitter followers were quick to jump in the conversation, there was nothing but silence from these brands.

Important to note: responding to negative tweets privately, in a direct message, outside of the initial thread means the Twitter public never sees the brand addressing and attempting to resolve the issue. This is not an ideal strategy in dealing with a complaint on social media. The best approach for a brand is to bite the bullet and respond quickly, right out in the open. If it becomes time to exchange specific personal information (location, order #s, etc), that is when the conversation should switch to direct messages.

UPDATE: Comcast, or more specifically the user ComcastSean did eventually respond to my pledge that they’re going to lose my business… 11 days after my original post. 


Many brands have their social channels and audience interaction down to a fine science and those brands are not hard to find as they’re the often most visible and interactive on most social channels. And some brands might surprise you!







What are some trends we notice in these interactions?

+ Timely Responses

When it takes five minutes to answer, compared to five days, that says quite a bit about how much you value customer feedback.

+ Just Ask Questions

Most often, the solution to a customer service issue isn’t right there in front of you. Simply asking, “How can I help?” is a great first step to showing the customer that they matter.

+ Even if the customer won’t like the answer, you still need to respond.
+ Not Just Haters, But Congratulators

It’s important that brands are responding to and joining in with not just the complaints and negativity, but also the compliments, praise and fun back & forth banter. Here are some examples of brands that do this very well…




+ A clear system of monitoring and responding to social interactions

The bigger the brand, the more they’re being talked to and about on social channels. In order to feasibly respond at all, brands need to streamline these interactions through a social media monitoring system (of which there are MANY) for a clear picture of who is saying what and on what channel. Further, there needs to be a clear and widely understood directive for how to respond to specific issues, including specific language, links and follow up procedures. But, remember to be human beings and avoid the mistake below…

+ At all costs, avoid canned, automated replies

Arguably worse than not responding at all is the predictable, repeated and overly corporate auto-response. Publically repeating the same canned line, over and over, to multiple people is just lazy and communicates to the public that the brand doesn’t have to time or interest to genuinely respond and interact. It takes the social right out of social media and turns a human-to-human interaction into human-to-robot. People don’t respond well to robots.

+ Empowerment

Those responsible for managing a brand’s social channels need to be trained and empowered enough to speak for the brand in real time. This means removing long, arduous approval processes and allowing responses to flow quickly and seamlessly. This also requires a brand to trust in those that speak on its behalf, which brings us to our next point…

+ A dedicated team of experienced, skillful social channel managers

A common misconception is that social channels can be managed by the intern, fresh out of college grads, or your most junior marketing staff. They grew up with social channels so who could be better for the job, right? The reality is that, as a representative voice of a brand, those in this role need to have a deep understanding of brand voice and guidelines, excellent written communication skills, experience in high pressure environments and proven a ability to problem solve.


Of all the social media do’s and don’ts covered, there is one fundamental conclusion more important than all of them; no amount of social media savvy can save a bad product or service. If a brand finds itself in a spot of relentless criticism, constantly facing an onslaught of bad press and negative customer comments (Comcast perhaps?), the problems run far deeper than how they’re managing their social channels. Before assessing how to manage negativity and complaints, start at the source and determine why they’re happening in the first place. Some brands do this well, some terribly and some not at all. It’s not hard to find who fits where.

Matt Popkes
Matt Popkes, VP of Strategy at eROI.