Fix problems fast with the phone company, airlines, retailers and more

When United Airlines baggage handlers broke Dave Carroll’s guitar, the musician called the customer service phone number and then traded e-mails with company representatives for nine months—but United refused to pay for the damage. So Carroll composed a music video titled United Breaks Guitars and posted it on YouTube. Millions of people all over the world started watching it. Less than a week later, United backed down and offered to cover Carroll’s guitar repair costs and give him $1,200 in flight vouchers.

When we call customer service, no one hears about our problem except the phone rep we speak with. That makes it easy for the company to ignore us. When we complain through social media such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, however, many other potential customers might hear about our problem, greatly increasing the company’s incentive to resolve the issue in a fair manner.

More and more companies are realizing that social media is a potent consumer weapon that could hurt them and so cannot be ignored. Comcast, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, L.L.Bean, Nike, Southwest Airlines, UPS and Zappos are among the companies that have geared up to respond quickly to social-media complaints.

Example: Delta agents told me nothing could be done when a flight delay threatened to make me late for a speaking engagement. I sent a Tweet about my problem to Delta’s customer service department from my smartphone, and 13 minutes later, I was booked on a flight that got me to my destination on time.

Rather than rely on a single social-media tool to obtain customer service, it pays to make your voice heard in more than one place…

• Send the company a Tweet reading: “I’m having trouble with [one of the company’s products or services]—is there anything you can do to help me? #fail”. Twitter is a great place to start when you’re trying to obtain customer service because it’s quick and easy. Tweets are brief—140 characters or fewer—and can be sent from a computer or cell phone.

Visit Twitter.com, and follow the directions to sign up for an account if you haven’t already. Then track down the Twitter “handle” of the company you’re trying to reach by searching on Twitter or by doing an online search for the company’s name and the word “Twitter.” (Add the phrase “customer service” to this search if the company appears to have multiple Twitter handles.) Start your message, which will be available to all Twitter users, with this handle.

Example: “@Comcastcares I’m having trouble with my cable installation—can you help me? #fail”.

Politeness pays here even if you are very upset. Ranting increases the odds that the company—and other Twitter users—will dismiss you as a crank.

Do include “#fail” at the end of complaint Tweets. This “hashtag” is used on Twitter and elsewhere to indicate that the message involves a problem or mistake. Some customer service departments make a special effort to respond promptly to messages ending in “#fail”. (If you make a YouTube video about the problem, include a link in your Tweet.)

If the company’s customer service department does monitor Twitter, you could hear back within a few minutes or a few hours—response times vary widely. If so, you might be asked to provide additional details via Twitter’s “Direct Message” feature. To send a Direct Message, click the gear icon in the top right of the Twitter home page, select “Direct Messages” from the drop-down menu, click “New Message” and type the Twitter handle of the recipient in the address box.

• Contact customer service via live chat. If your Tweet does not trigger a prompt response, check the company’s Web site to see if you can chat online with customer service. Online chat is not as powerful as Twitter, because no one besides the company rep will see your complaint, but when available, it’s usually a preferable option to calling the customer service phone number. Wait times are typically shorter with live chat, and there’s no need to navigate tricky phone trees or struggle with difficult accents. Calmly explain your problem, and propose a fair solution, either through live chat or on the phone.

• Make a YouTube video showing the absurdity or frustration of your situation, particularly if your problem is visually dramatic.

Example: Your luggage arrives at baggage claim looking like it was mauled by bears. Use your smartphone or digital camera to film it as it travels around the carousel, then film opening the bag to reveal the damage inside.

Post a video on YouTube featuring this footage. Consider adding audio of your struggle to sort out the issue with the company’s unhelpful phone reps.

Warning: Recording phone conversations without the other party’s consent is illegal in many states, but a recording of just your side of the conversation is legal and potentially effective. Repeat back the absurd things the phone rep tells you to confirm them and get them on your recording—“So you’re telling me my lifetime warranty expired?”

Keep this YouTube video brief, and include the product name or company name in its title.

• Post an account of your problem on your Facebook page, Google+ page and/or blog if you still haven’t obtained satisfaction. If you don’t have a blog or a page on these social-media sites, search online for the name of the company together with the word “forum” or “complaints” to see if there are independent Web sites where the company’s customers discuss their experiences and post your story there. (Consumer complaint sites such as RipoffReport.com and PissedConsumer.com are less likely to be monitored by company representatives.)

This post should explain your problem and the struggles you’ve had getting the company to address it. It should ask, “Has anyone else had this happen? Did you get it resolved?” (If you made a YouTube video, include a link to it in the post.) A fellow consumer might have a suggestion about how to get the company to help. Or your post might trigger a wave of attention and discussion that gets the company’s attention.

• Tweet your problem to consumer reporters. If a member of the media starts making inquiries, it will greatly increase the odds that the company will seek to resolve your complaint.

Twitter is the best way to reach most consumer reporters these days. Read local newspapers and watch local TV news to learn the names of reporters who cover consumer issues in your area, then do a search online for those reporters’ names and the word “Twitter” to find their Twitter handles. Tweet a brief description of your problem to them followed by the question “Can you help me with this?”

For more on resolving consumer complaints, see “Calling Customer Service? Tips to Get Heard”.