06/12/2013 03:15 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

Customer Service Meets Social Media

Customer service has been on my mind lately. Bad customer service, that is. I recently cancelled a local newspaper, asking for a refund of the remaining balance in my account; it not only took two months to get that refund, it took me threatening to out them on this blog. The day that went into my final email to them, I had a response back from the publisher. And then I got my refund -- in cash, no less -- two days later through overnight mail.

I've also been having lots of trouble with my Comcast cable service. In fact, pretty much every other month for the last two years I've had to have my cable box reset, meaning I lost all my scheduled recordings, not to mention having to wait through the reset process with no television, and then waiting another day or two for the full guide to load again. That's annoying. And then just last week the darn box just stopped working all together, and I had to wait four days for a service call. Have I ever gotten a refund for such poor service? No. In fact, when I asked for one sometime last year, the response was, "Well, we're fixing the problem so we don't have to give you one." Not quite the response I was hoping for. Although I do have to say that much (but certainly not all) of the time their phone agents are at least friendly, and their on-site techs are always really nice people who know what they are doing.

Most consumers have become frustrated with bad customer service, as it seems to be endemic. And many of us take to social media to vent our frustrations. Sometimes companies respond to those venting publicly, sometimes they don't. It generally depends on how well the companies have integrated social media into both their marketing and service efforts. It does take a lot of effort to monitor social media outlets, and that is only increasing, as the number of social media outlets and their usage is also increasing.

But I just ran across an article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek (see article here) that talked about Costco and how happy its employees are because they are treated well by the company. The employee turnover at Costco is extremely low for the retail industry. And that got me thinking about a book I read a long time ago, The Customer Comes Second by Hal Rosenbluth. Rosenbluth's thesis was that if you treat your employees well, they will take care of your customers. That seems to make some intuitive sense. So why aren't more companies treating their employees well? Cost cutting is one reason. There are, I'm sure, many other reasons. Of course, companies might think they are treating their employees very well, thank you very much.

But let's get back to social media and its impact on customer service. While it is always better to not have any customer complaints at all, we'll never reach that utopia. But today's company has to realize that consumers have a much larger voice than they've had at any time in the past. Previously, for instance, disgruntled customers could perhaps call and demand to talk to a supervisor; of course, you were never sure the person who came on the line really was a supervisor. Or they could write a letter and hope that it wasn't just tossed. The bottom line is that their complaint stayed fairly private, although research showed that unhappy customers told, on average, about 10 others about their experience. (Happy customers typically told three people about their experience.)

Today, though, anyone can take to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or any number of other sites to air their complaints. They can also submit a nasty comment on an online article about the company; if this happens to get "liked" a lot, the comment can go viral in a heartbeat. Airlines have learned this lesson the hard way over the last few years when they've stranded their customers on the tarmac, or a flight attendant or pilot goes a little crazy in the cabin.

It's best to nip these kinds of incidents in the bud. A solid response to a complaint can turn a devastating viral story into perhaps a minor event to manage and may even allow the company to have a good story circulating (although that generally won't go as far as a rant will). But that means companies have to devote resources to monitoring all the major social media sites, and allow those employees to solve problems they find immediately. There's just no getting around that now that "word of mouth" is now global and those 10 people who in the past might have heard about a bad experience are now 10,000 or even 10 million.