Sixty-one percent of Americans surveyed for an Arizona State University study said that complaining about a product or service was not worthwhile, but George Starr of Covington, Ky., wasn't among them. When Covington's seven-year-old rear-projection Sony TV died long after its warranty had expired, he learned that the problem might have been part of a broader problem discussed on a Facebook page called "I have a defective Sony TV." He e-mailed the company, which quickly sent a technician to investigate, and two weeks later he had a $1,500 replacement 55-inch flat-screen TV free of charge. "I'm a very happy customer," Starr said.
Consumers have new tools with which to express themselves. Internet forums can turn one person's headache into a corporate migraine. Companies as different as Samsung and Domino's Pizza are on social-networking sites so that they can monitor what's said about them--and they often respond to a concern before it can go viral. Bad news travels fast. According to the ASU study, each dissatisfied complainant spreads the word to an average of about 18 people.
"Twitter has become the go-to brand for customer support," said Marsha Collier, author of "The Ultimate Online Customer Service Guide" (Wiley, 2011). "I had a question about OnStar, tweeted it out, and got the answer within the hour. Some brands will respond within seconds."
Many companies use social-media monitoring software to scan Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs constantly for brand references. And those companies have customer-service agents dedicated to those sites, says Jeff Brady, a public-relations expert who works with Working Solutions, a Dallas company that trains service representatives.
Some businesses are giving consumers a wider range of ways to reach them. L.L.Bean, for example, posts its toll-free phone number on all of its Web pages (a convenience few companies offer) and allows e-mail queries and live chat with agents. You can even leave a message for an agent who will call you back.
User communities are another way to catch a company's eye. Verizon Wireless, for example, encourages customers to post questions and comments and air grievances about its products and services. Verizon representatives frequently join the discussions.
Dedicated websites like Yelp, which let customers rate businesses and sound off about experiences (and invite companies to respond), are another option. Here are more ways to solve a problem.