No-one likes to see their organisation being criticised on social media.
But the concern this triggers may escalate if the comments are from someone with a large online following or wider influence.
During the weekend I noticed someone I personally follow vent his frustration, through tweets, at a train company and I was intrigued by how it handled the situation.
The criticism came from former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan who had lost his rail ticket.
He took to Twitter to complain that he was being asked by Virgin Trains to buy a new ticket despite still having the booking information.
Lose a ticket but still have the booking info @VirginTrains ... Yet you demand a new ticket to be bought ... !!!!!!!!— Michael Vaughan (@MichaelVaughan) September 10, 2017
When the operator responded that proof of purchase would not be accepted, Mr Vaughan continued to tweet his frustration.
So misplacing a ticket means pay again ... Even though I have proof of the ticket I bought !!!!!!!!! https://t.co/LpB9D1z2Th— Michael Vaughan (@MichaelVaughan) September 10, 2017
As someone with more than one million followers, and a following which goes beyond cricket – thanks mainly to his time on Strictly – this had the potential to be quite damaging for Virgin.
And it got me thinking about how brands should respond in this situation and any lessons which could be learnt from how Virgin Trains managed this case.
One of the key points from this case was that it happened on a Sunday – a time when many companies may not be monitoring their social media accounts.
Virgin Trains is probably better placed than many to deal promptly with negative comments because of the 24/7 nature of its business and its large number of daily customer interactions. A quick check of the Sorry for the Inconvenience website shows the company has apologised to customers more than 15,000 times this year – an average of 59 per day.
Its social media monitoring enabled it to respond promptly in this situation, something which always looks good on social media.
On our social media training courses we tell delegates they should aim to respond to negative comments within 15 minutes.
Let’s take a look at how Virgin Trains responded to the Twitter criticism from Mr Vaughan.
Its first response said: ‘You do need the ticket in the manner you selected during purchase. Email confirmation wouldn’t be accepted.’
You do need the ticket in the manner you selected during purchase. Email confirmation wouldn't be accepted ^CB— Virgin Trains (@VirginTrains) September 10, 2017
It later responded by saying: ‘Proof of purchase wouldn’t be accepted. You need the ticket to travel.’
Proof of purchase wouldn't be accepted. You need the ticket to travel ^CB— Virgin Trains (@VirginTrains) September 10, 2017
These responses are very factual, slightly robotic and certainly lack a human touch. They don’t contain empathy.
On our social media training courses we stress the importance or responding to negative comments in a human, friendly and personal way.
This approach can take a little bit of bravery, and staff who feel empowered to go beyond pre-approved lines, but difficult situations can often be defused by talking to complainers as people.
The rule of twice
What I particularly liked about this scenario was the way Virgin Trains responded twice and then withdrew from the discussion.
When your brand is being criticised on social media, particularly by someone with a large following, it can be tempting to respond to every tweet or post.
But it is vital you avoid getting into a back-and-forth online argument, so don’t reply more than twice.
If a customer continues to criticise after your initial response, look to take the conversation offline, by offering to contact the person in another way (phone call, email, private message).
This shows your willingness to address the issue and creates a good impression with those who are watching the conversation online – social media is a spectator sport.
Apologise (where appropriate)
If your company has done something wrong – and there is no suggestion Virgin Trains did in this situation – it should apologise.
Again, it is crucial companies sound human. An apology is much more likely to sound sincere if it looks like it has come from a human rather than a robot. Copy and paste is not your friend in this situation.
The best apologies also offer a solution to the problem the customer is experiencing.
The key in this situation is to show your customers that someone is not getting preferential treatment just because they have a large number of followers.
If a company responds to Mr Vaughan’s concerns about his journey, then it needs to also be replying to everyone else who is experiencing problems.
As we highlighted earlier in this blog, Virgin Trains constantly interacts with its customers on social media and they continued to do so while dealing with the complaints of the former England captain.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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