Our social media manager Matt Owen pointed me in the direction of a reasonably heated Twitter spat between Cineworld, the cinema chain, and a movie fan who felt that its prices were too high.

The exchange, which runs and runs, is fascinating. It’s one of the first times I have really seen a brand repeatedly back itself up on Twitter in the face of escalating criticism, albeit from one person. 

Here’s a screenshot of the start of the spat:

It’s well worth checking out the whole conversation. Personally, I think the brand comes out on top, though perhaps the debate should have ended a little sooner, given the differences in opinion.

Why don’t more companies do this? 

That mantra about the customer always being right… it is abject nonsense. Customers are often wrong about all kinds of things. Brands need to consider how they should respond in the event that people complain noisily, in public, about things that – from the brand’s perspective – seem unfair or unreasonable.

Let’s remind ourselves of why consumers use social media channels for customer service: it is because traditional customer service is horribly broken

It’s so much easier for consumers to complain in public, via channels that they’re already using, than to pay premium rates for the privilege of navigating a horrible automated phone menu system in order to speak to somebody in Mumbai who can’t help you because your query is too complicated and they aren’t authorised and they’re really sorry but you’re going to have to go into your local bank branch to get the problem fixed. 

It’s not good enough. Many large companies have been asking for this for years, and I for one am delighted that they are finally being called out in public, even if some customers are being borderline (or totally) unreasonable.

Why is service so broken? 

Once a company hits a certain scale it typically perceives customer service as a cost. A cost that, if reduced, will come straight off the bottom line. Cue lots of hand rubbing by senior managers, who are – more often than not – incentivised to focus on the short term. If bonuses were heavily linked to retention rates, rather than sales and annual profits, then I don’t think we’d have this problem.

Any sane business-minded person knows that the key to long-term profitability is customer retention. That requires quality service, on top of quality products / services / pricing. The substandard service provided by many big brands is not – repeat not – the consumer’s fault. It is a business decision to provide shitty service. Dress it up any way you want, but that’s what it is. 

Service is one area that every business should consider investing in. It can be a real differentiator. Consumers demand good service, and they’ll always want to choose the path of least resistance. This is why social media has, for lots of big companies, become all about service. The organisational structure must reflect that: PR agencies and marketing departments aren’t necessarily the best folks to be overseeing your social media operation. 

What’s happening, it seems, is that companies are being forced into investing in social customer service by the sheer weight of questions, concerns and complaints on the likes of Twitter and Facebook. This isn’t a bad thing, far from it, though it’s only happening because consumers are more than happy to complain in public, and brands want to save face. But it’s not so straightforward to always have these conversations in public. 

How should brands respond to awkward public messages?

I find Cineworld’s approach refreshing. So many times you’d see a lame copy and paste apology, when in this case the brand has nothing to apologise about. It’s worth considering how you might reply, in similar circumstances. 

This is something that’s going to change from brand to brand. Imagine the amusement value of a Ryanair twitter feed, with social guidelines laid down by Michael O’Leary? Other companies might not want to upset any apple carts, regardless of the nature of the complaint. I’m no fan of Ryanair’s approach to its customers, but at least it is ballsy enough to not roll over whenever it is draws flak.

It’s a bit like blogging. Not everybody is going to agree with you, or like your article. And that’s just fine, but if you firmly believe something and then try to pacify or suck up to those with opposing views then I think you’re doing it all wrong.

In IBM’s social media guidelines there is the following instruction: “Don’t pick fights”. Sound advice, but sometimes fights come your way, and you need to know how to respond. 

Here’s another one from Econsultancy: Have a thick skin and take all criticism on the chin (but stick up for yourself where necessary).

Thoughts? Did Cineworld go too far? What are your own guidelines for this sort of thing? Do leave a comment below (even if you disagree with me!).