“I’d like to speak to your social media manager, please.”

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A Tale of Two Tweeters

I noticed something this week on Twitter reflective of a social media trend that I wish would go away. (Note: I won’t screen-shot or name-drop, as that would undercut my point.)

Instance A: A well-regarded sports media personality (with well over a million Twitter followers) complained on his feed that the CBS network’s lack of a contract with his specific cable provider meant he was not able to watch the Super Bowl–specifically that the cable provider is shutting him out (a HOF member!) from watching the big game. Multiple tweets later (providing the play-by-play of the situation, as it were), he has let his followers know that an “engineer” has installed an antenna that can pick up his local CBS affiliate.

Instance B: An anchor/commentator for an “up-and-coming” “news” organization (with over 250,000 followers) tweets at NINE IN THE MORNING that he got upset there was no “McFish” on the menu of his local “MacDonalds” but when he asked to speak to the manager about it, he was reportedly told he was a “male Karen” and asked to leave. This person included a picture of the offending restaurant in his post. (In subsequent tweets, he proudly mentions that “McFish” was trending and that he thought “MacDonalds” now had a “big problem” on their hands. I have to confess, dear reader, I’m still not sure if this is just an elaborate joke or not. Considering the man’s other tweets, I’m leaning toward not.)

In both instances, a media professional who encountered some frustration with a retail business decided to air his grievances on social media, instead of (presumably) working directly with the companies to resolve the issue.

Why would two grown men take their grievances to hundreds of thousands or even over a million strangers? Because it works.

No Trends are Good Trends (Unless You’re Wendy’s)

It used to be a given that “any press is good press,” since news coverage increases your name recognition and the amount of space you take up in the marketplace. To be fair, we still see this play out in certain spheres (such as presidential politics).

But for corporations and retailers, social media is a fickle beast that must be treated with respect and fear. For every Wendy’s whose Twitter account gets positive buzz for its playful (and sometimes sassy) approach, you have dozens of horror stories of gaffes, goofs, and outright fails by corporate social media accounts. In the vast majority of cases, companies want to avoid the “trending topics” page, unless it’s regarding their latest ad campaign.

Customers know this. We’ve seen how a disgruntled passenger’s Instagram story or a frustrated customer’s Twitter thread has taken on a life of its own, resulting in viral trends, some unexpected media buzz, and eventually a corporate walk-back to try to save face.

As a result of the growing power of this “online review” economy, there is a heightened corporate sensitivity to “bad looks,” and customers have used that leverage to try to provoke a response. Maybe you’ve taken your gripes to social media in the past. I know I have.

Your deep-dish pizza arrives cold? Tell your thousands of Instagram followers and tag Pizza Hut in the story! You had to wait in a long line at the bank? Jump on their corporate Facebook page and talk about how it’s ridiculous that more lines aren’t open! Got bad service at Olive Garden? Don’t tell the manager–tell the Twitter mob! #OliveGardenIsTHEWORST

Point of fact, the social media companies revel in this sort of performative outrage. Viral angst generates a windfall of engagement and them sweet, sweet clicks. Plus, customers know that if they can kick up enough dust and get others to join in, they might get results faster.

I remember seeing a story last October in which a man sucker-punched another person in the parking lot of a Buc-ee’s gas station because that person supported a different political candidate, and within a few hours the phrase “Cancel Buc-ee’s” started trending on Twitter. I thought, Really? What does Buc-ee’s have to do with it?

That doesn’t matter to the mob. Retweets are easy, son; thinking is harder.

And that’s the poisonous logic of all this. I’m mad about something, so rather than addressing that particular person or place that caused my frustration, I’m going to summon the internet horde to flood the digital streets with torches and pitchforks.

Just Another Hashtag?

I think some of you may have your hackles up at this point, so I want to clarify: I’m not talking about serious or (dare I say) systemic social issues here. Some problems are much more widespread than a single person or place. Some issues deserve extended examination and discussion. We have seen in the last few years how social media is a powerful tool that can be used both constructively and destructively to bring people together behind a common cause. I’m not talking about that kind of “movement” dynamic right now.

Rather, I’m talking about the type of situation that, in the era before hashtags, would have gotten (at most) a complaint to a manager and perhaps a funny or exasperated anecdote to the folks around the water cooler or in the carpool line. “Oh man, I had such bad service at Louie’s Pizzeria last week; I think I’m going to be taking my business elsewhere until they get that straightened out!”

Now, all of our petty outrages get elevated to such a height that we are convinced the ENTIRE WORLD should know about them–without stopping to ask if they’re *that* big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.

What makes matters worse is that this multiplies. More people see that viral outrage gets the corporate giants’ attention, and decide that’s how things get done now. Another story is shared and another hashtag is created. Each person’s individual outrages contribute more noise to the internet cacophany, even if they doesn’t actually accomplish much beyond adding just another hashtag to the mix like so much visual static. Boycott this. Cancel that. #TheWorst. Blah blah blah blah blah. Any important issues or causes fighting for oxygen in the public square get swept away by the latest outrage-du-jour.

I’d like to suggest a different approach.

An Alternative Option

My wife and I ordered take-out at a fantastic local spot that serves twice-fried Korean fried chicken. Outstanding, crispy, spicy chicken strips and drumsticks, along with fries covered in kimchi and bulgogi that are just bonkers-good. It’s not a cheap meal, but it’s a nice splurge once in a while.

I picked up the order and brought it home only to find it was room-temperature, soggy, and in some cases over-cooked. It wasn’t enjoyable at all. We ended up eating most of it because we were hungry, but it’s frustrating when your much-anticipated meal turns out to be a dud.

So I jumped on social media…and pulled up the direct message option for the restaurant. I sent them something like the following as a private message: “Hey guys, I just wanted to let you know that our meal today was pretty disappointing for the following reasons… Usually, you guys are on point, so I’m going to assume it’s just an off-night. If you think it’s appropriate, let the kitchen staff know this one was a miss, so they can address it if needed. Don’t worry, we’ll be back sometime. Thanks.”

About an hour later, I got a response from the restaurant, thanking me for my approach, asking for details so they could refund my meal, and asking for my address. A few weeks later, I receive a gift card in the mail to pay for another dinner.

I didn’t need to get angry or rally the troops. I just reached out directly, let them know my concerns, tried not to be a jerk, and encouraged them to try again. They responded with graciousness and attention. Why? Because they’re not trying to give customers lousy food and a bad experience.

That’s the thing: no business, restaurant, or retail store that wants to succeed is actively trying to disappoint their customers–really.

Disappointments do happen. Food gets cold, cashiers get tired and frustrated, people call in sick so that fewer lanes are open for your convenience. And that’s also not to say that if you respond well, you’ll always get a refund and a free meal. Sometimes, yes, you may encounter corporate indifference, for a variety of reasons. When that happens, you don’t make a scene, you don’t yell or scream, and you don’t record a video rant to share with the Internet. And why don’t you do that? Because you’re a doggone grown-up, that’s why.

On the flip side, I also try to go out of my way to tell restaurants, stores, and other folks in the “hourly-wage” fields when they do a really good job. I love asking servers if I can speak to a manager and immediately adding, “Don’t worry, it’s a good thing!” just to watch them visibly relax, smile, and go grab their supervisor. I enjoy bragging on good service and quality work.

One more story: years ago, I ate at a Subway restaurant with my folks, and they told me they liked coming to this one location because the manager really cared about what he was doing and that attitude trickled down to the whole crew. While in line, I watched an 18-year-old make my sandwich with skill, care, and speed, putting the ingredients together carefully and presenting me with an advertisement-perfect sub. For most Subway employees, the label “sandwich artist” is wild hyperbole. For this kid, it didn’t come close enough. And I let him know about it. And his manager. And now you.

Make Praise Go Viral

Here’s my bottom-line recommendation, dear reader: let me encourage you to make your praise go viral, and keep your complaints in your DMs.

When you have those bad interactions, those disappointing experiences, those let-down expectations in the marketplace, try to direct those frustrations toward finding out who is responsible and can actually make a difference in the situation. Seek restitution if needed, and seek improvement whenever possible, as that benefits not only you but your fellow customers.

But even more so, when you have those great interactions, those over-the-top positive experiences, and your expectations are exceeded by everyday rockstars who are doing their very best in an often thankless position, highlight that. Give big, generous tips to restaurant staff. Grab managers and tell them which of their employees is hustling. Jump on your social media feeds and promote local businesses (especially small, independent shops!) who are doing things the right way.

It seems like such a small thing. It costs you practically nothing. But it makes a difference.

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