The Best Way To Prevent Customers From Tweeting Complaints

Last March, Shannon Watts tweeted a complaint about United Airlines.

Watts had observed what she believed to be poor treatment from a United gate agent towards several other passengers and she took to Twitter to voice her displeasure.

The tweet went viral and eventually made national headlines.


Never mind that Watts only witnessed only part of the incident and had some of her facts wrong. (This thoughtful post from One Mile at a Time clears that up.) Or that United didn't help itself with its poor initial response.

What's scary is this type of viral complaint can be a PR nightmare. 

So what can companies do to protect themselves? I did a study of customer complaints on Twitter to find out and one very clear answer appeared.

Here's what you need to do to prevent 80 percent of those complaints.

Customer opening the Twitter app on their iPad.

Study Overview

I did a similar study in 2014 to find out what customers complained about on Twitter. You can find those results here.

Social media use by customers has risen since then, so I decided to replicate the research to see what has changed.

I looked at tweets attached to three common hashtags that contained a complaint:

  • 100 tweets tagged with #badservice

  • 100 tweets tagged with #customerservice

  • 50 tweets tagged with #servicefailure

A couple of notes here:

Only obvious complaints were included. For instance, the #customerservice hashtag also has a lot of job postings and customer service advice articles, so I left those out.

There's also a clear limitation to this study. Not every customer who complains uses a hashtag, or one that is consistently popular. So it is a possibility that my results are a bit skewed.

Finally, for background, a 2017 study from Sprout Social found that 46 percent of people have used social media to complain about a brand. My own study on consumer response time expectations revealed 40 percent of customers use Twitter for customer service.


The Big Result

There's one insight that really jumped out—80 percent of complaints on Twitter were an escalation.

This means the customer previously had contact with the company via a different channel (phone, in-person, email, etc.) and had not received a satisfactory resolution.

This makes it clear that the best way for businesses to prevent these types of complaints is to get it right the first time. Unfortunately, many companies do such a poor job serving other channels, they effectively train customers to use social media.

Here are the top reasons people complain for 2014 and 2018:

Chart highlighting twitter complaints by category for 2014 compared to 2018.

Number one on the list is waiting for a resolution. These customers experienced some issue with a company and felt it was taking too long to get fixed. This angry tweet could have been prevented if the initial phone complaint had been handled to the customer's satisfaction.

The third most popular reason customers complain on twitter is the customer never received a response to another contact. This customer tweeted about a product issue because she's still waiting for a call. The company probably could have prevented this tweet by (a) fixing the issue or (b) responding to her request for a call.

Many public tweets are a customer's way of venting about a service failure. Quite a few tweets aren't even specific about the issue or what resolution the customer is seeking. 

Take Action!

One thing you can do is trace the social media complaints your company receives. This can apply to Twitter or any other social media channels.

  1. What are customers complaining about most often?

  2. Can you address the root cause?

For example, one company identified a number of complaints were all connected to the same process. They are now fixing that process to help improve customer satisfaction, which in turn should reduce complaints.

There are also a few courses on LinkedIn Learning to help you develop your social media customer service skills.

You'll need a LinkedIn Premium account to watch the full videos. You can get a 30-day trial here or access the training through your account.

Why Customers Are Naturally Negative

“If it bleeds, it leads.”

It's a popular maxim in news reporting. News directors and editors know that people are fascinated by the negative. Accidents, violence, and tragedies get us talking.

Sadly, the same is true in customer service.

Your customers are naturally wired to focus on the negative. Great service feels good, but service failures are what people remember.

This post examines customers’ negativity bias. I’ll share some compelling evidence, the science behind it, and offer some solutions.

Negativity Stats

Let’s start with a statistic you’ve probably heard of:

Customers will tell 10 people about a bad experience, but only 5 people about a good experience.

This venerable stat came from a 1980 study conducted for Coca-Cola by Technical Assistance Research Programs, Inc. (TARP). 

John A. Goodman, one of the study’s authors, shared some additional insight in his book, Strategic Customer Service. His research across other industries consistently showed that customers will tell twice as many people about a bad experience than they will a good one.

Goodman found that online, the ratio of negative to positive word of mouth grows to a whopping 4 to 1.

In The Effortless Experience, authors Matt Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi examine the impact of good versus bad experiences on customer loyalty. They found that customer service interactions are nearly 4 times more likely to drive disloyalty than loyalty!

On a micro level, wait times provide another great example. Research reveals that when people get to choose which line to stand in, such as at the grocery store, they get agitated when they pick a slower line. Oddly, they don’t feel a corresponding positive feeling when they choose a faster one.

On a macro level, there’s the common feeling that customer service is steadily going down hill. Of course, this isn’t really true:

Source:  ACSI

Source: ACSI

Clearly, customers are focused on the negative.


Negativity Bias

Guy Winch Ph.D. is a psychologist, author, and TED Speaker. He literally wrote the book on complaining. (I highly recommend it - it’s called The Squeaky Wheel.) 

Winch told me these scary customer service stats can be attributed to our natural instincts:

Our brains are wired for a negativity bias, which means we are much more likely to recall and to be impacted by negative experiences than by positive ones.

In his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock explains that our brain’s emotional center, called the limbic system, is responsible for this negativity bias. 

The limbic system fires up more intensely when it perceives a danger compared to when it senses a reward. The arousal from a danger also comes on faster, lasts longer, and is harder to budge.

So, negative feelings are more memorable because they’re more powerful. But, are we naturally drawn to negative stories or do we just remember them better?

Research conducted by Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka suggests that negative stories are indeed more alluring. They conducted an experiment where subjects were asked to read political news stories. Participants were presented with a mix of positive, negative, and neutral headlines.

The results?

Trussler and Soroka found that positive news stories were 26 percent less likely to be read than negative ones.

This negativity bias naturally creeps into customer service. Winch sums it up this way:

Customers might have ten positive interactions with a company and yet a single negative experience can still compromise their customer loyalty entirely.

(Note: Winch does some fascinating work and I’ve quoted him before. Check out his Ted Talk on emotional hygiene.)



People who watched G.I. Joe as a kid might remember that every episode included a short PSA that ended with the catch phrase, “Knowing is half the battle.” 

That certainly holds true here. Understanding your customers’ natural negativity bias can lead you to a few solutions. 


#1 Avoid broken promises

Customers rightfully expect companies to do exactly what they say they’re going to do. For example, if you go to a restaurant and order a meal, you expect to get the meal you ordered, prepared properly, and delivered in a timely fashion. 

This isn’t rocket science. It certainly isn’t the stuff of legend. It’s table stakes. I call these basic promises.

Breaking your basic promises is extremely aggravating to customers. You can explore how it feels with my interactive guide to stuff your customers hate.

Before you go out and add that awesome new feature to your product, make sure the basics already work.


#2 Be really good at something

In their book, Uncommon Service, Frances Frei and Anne Morriss make a compelling case for trade-offs. 

Companies can’t excel at everything. It’s just not feasible. So, a better strategy is to be really, really good at something your customers care about and let the less important areas slide a little.

Here are some great examples:

  • In-N-Out Burger provides outstanding food and great service, but the trade-off is you might spend 15 minutes waiting in the drive through line (it’s so worth it). 

  • Southwest Airlines allows people to fly at low cost, but the trade-off is there’s no assigned seats and no first class.

  • IKEA sells stylish furniture at a low-cost, but the trade-off is their furniture isn’t built to last for generations.

The point is you can’t be all things to all people, so be the best you can be at something your customers really want.


#3 Fix service failures

John A. Goodman’s customer service research led him to a surprising discovery. Here’s another quote from his book, Strategic Customer Service:

A customer who complains and is satisfied by the resolution is 30 percent more loyal than a noncomplainer.

The data suggests that fixing service failures provides an incredible opportunity. Yeah, no brainer, right? Sadly, most problems go unnoticed and unresolved.

There are three reasons behind this:

  1. Customers often don’t complain
  2. Employees frequently fail to share complaints with management
  3. Managers don’t realize a complaint is really an iceberg

If you can overcome these three obstacles, you can get really good at problem resolution. And, if you can do that, your customers won’t have anything negative to talk about, will they?


Want to Learn More?

You can gain new skills by checking out my new training video, Working With Upset Customers.

The course available on, so you’ll need a subscription to view the entire thing. You can get a free 10-day trial here.

Here’s a preview:

5 Reasons Why Angry Customers Don't Complain

Customer complaints are a valuable source of information. They let us know when a customer is unhappy so we can try to retain their business. Complaints can also serve as an early warning system that helps prevent service failures by allowing us to fix small problems before they become big ones.

A lack of complaints doesn’t mean things are going well.

Noted customer service expert, John Goodman, estimates that only 50 percent of customers will complain about a problem. (The actual number varies by industry, company, and product.) Of those complaints, Goodman estimates that 90 percent are directed to frontline employees. In a recent post, I discussed reasons why frontline employees don’t pass along those complaints to management.

What about the other 50 percent who don’t complain at all?

This is the really scary group. They silently take their business elsewhere or they tell everyone they know (except for you) about your poor service. The damage to your reputation and your bottom line could be well underway before you even know about it.

Here are five reasons why these customers might not be sharing their complaints with you.

Does your company discourage customer complaints?

Does your company discourage customer complaints?


#1: It’s too difficult

Most customers won’t bother complaining to your company if it’s too difficult. Or, they’ll just Tweet it. 

I recently went online to register an LG television I had just purchased. Their registration link redirected me to the wrong page so I had to hunt around on the LG website for the correct page. This was a minor annoyance, but I’m an LG fan, so I decided to let them know.

First, I tried to email. If you want to email LG you have to fill in 14 required fields in their email contact form plus acknowledge that you’ve read and agree to their data protection policy. No thanks.

One of those Forsee website surveys popped up as I clicked out of the email form. I thought about giving that a try until I saw the survey. It consisted of 36 questions, 24 of which were required. Really?!

I just wanted to tell LG about a small problem on their website, but they made it too difficult to be worthwhile. I decided to Tweet the problem to LG instead. Their responsive Twitter folks quickly got the message and fixed the link, but my complaint was now public rather than private.

If you want your customers to complain, don’t make it so difficult that they feel like they’re being punished for trying to drop you a line.


#2: No confidence

Many customers don’t complain because they don’t think it will do any good.

Psychotherapist Guy Winch called these “self-defeating, self-fulfilling prophecies” in The Squeaky Wheel, his how-to guide for effective complaining. We don’t believe complaining will do any good so we don’t complain. Because we don’t complain, the problem doesn’t get fixed. Because the problem doesn’t get fixed, we continue to be angry with the company that’s responsible.


#3: Afraid of the outcome

Some customers don’t complain because they’re worried it will negatively impact an otherwise good relationship.

I learned about this one from my friend Lenore. She and her husband had received poor service at one of their favorite restaurants. They thought about complaining, but were worried that the owner would back his employee rather than see it their way. In the end, they chose to write off a new employee’s rude behavior as a one-time occurrence because they didn’t want a complaint to escalate to the point where they felt like they wouldn’t return.


#4: Fear of retribution

You won’t get many complaints if customers feel they’ll be penalized in some way.

Complaining customers have been treated rudely, denied service, or worse. It only takes one gross YouTube video to convince customers to never, ever, complain about their pizza. Patrons of Amy’s Baking Company Boutique & Bistro in Scottsdale, Arizona were recently subjected to a barrage of profane verbal assaults in what BuzzFeed called the most epic Facebook meltdown ever. In one extreme case, a San Francisco bookstore owner tracked down the writer of a negative Yelp review and went to his house where she allegedly assaulted him


#5: Nothing to gain

Customers won’t complain because there’s nothing in it for them. 

This is often the case with rude service. Customers aren’t trying to get a refund or have a defective product repaired. They simply feel slighted by a rude employee. Why take time to complain if they can just take their business somewhere else?


How can you encourage complaints?

Start by making complaining easy. Whittle down those 14 fields on your contact form to just three: name, email address, and message. Skip the never-ending surveys and stick with a few simple questions. Be available.

Next, encourage customers to complain. Make sure none of the obstacles detailed above are present. Ask them directly, “How was everything?” Actually give a damn about the answer.

Finally, take action. Prove to your customers that their complaint was worth their time. Resolve their issue. Thank customers for their feedback rather than lashing out or making excuses. After all, they’ve just helped you make your business better.

Why employees don't pass along customer complaints

Are your employees silent about customer complaints?

Are your employees silent about customer complaints?

Continuously improving customer service seems simple in theory. All you have to do is listen to what customers complain about and then solve their problems. The really sophisticated companies employ early warning systems to spot complaints before too many customers are affected.

Unfortunately, the most critical link in this process is often its weakest: frontline employees.

Noted customer service expert John Goodman estimates that 90 percent of complaints are directed to frontline employees. That makes them a great source of information about what makes customers unhappy. The problem is that these complaints often aren’t passed along to someone who could take action.

Here’s a passage from my book, Service Failure, that addresses reasons employees might not pass along complaints:

If employees aren’t at fault, you might expect them to take action to resolve the problem or pass the complaint along to someone who can address the issue. But what if handling the complaint isn’t in an employee’s best interests? 

There are several explanations for why an employee might not want to address a customer complaint or pass it along to management: 

  • The employee fears being reprimanded for causing the complaint.
  • The employee thinks the complaint will not be properly addressed by management, so sharing the information is a waste of time.
  • The employee views handling the problem as an annoyance or inconvenience.
  • The employee believes he was treated poorly by the customer, so intentionally mishandling the complaint is a means to exact revenge.


If you want complaints, you’ve gotta ask

I used to think I possessed some sort of magical charm that would get employees to open up to me. Many of my consulting assignments require me to gather information through employee interviews. Time after time, my client’s executives would be surprised at what I was able to learn through my conversations with their frontline team.

The reality is I don’t have any magical powers. Employees open up to me because I do two things their managers typically don’t.

  1. I ask them for their input.
  2. I offer to work with them to make things better.

Employees, like customers, want to be heard. Most genuinely want to make things better. They just need to be given that chance.

Unfortunately, too many customer service leaders solve problems by brainstorming with each other in closed-door meetings. The unsaid message to the frontlines is “the grown-ups are talking” and the team should hold tight until the next proclamation is made. 

Do you want to get your employees to pass along those complaints? Make a habit of asking them what their customers are saying. Better yet, ask them what they think we should do about it. Involve them in creating and implementing solutions.

Frontline employees are one of the best sources of voice of customer feedback. Can you afford to ignore them?