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It’s a universal experience: You need to contact a business to dispute a bill, to ask a question or to grumble about a faulty product or poor service. So you dial a 1-800 number and listen to a recorded message: press “1” for this, press “2” for that. You wait on hold and try to tune out the smooth jazz background music as minutes tick by. Finally, someone picks up. But you’re transferred, disconnected or told to leave a message. The rigmarole goes on.

It doesn’t always happen that way. But frustrated consumers remember when it does, and they choose to take faster, more public routes to reach businesses: They log on to social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Cable guy doesn’t show up? Google the company’s Twitter handle or Facebook page and type away.

There are some wild success stories: One woman spent a year trying to get a charge—a whopping $1,126 for a 2-inch bandage—removed from a hospital bill over the phone, as reported in a feature by WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. Then she posted her ordeal on the hospital’s Facebook page. Voila! Her account was credited by the next morning.

Some industries, airlines in particular, have earned reputations for very fast digital customer service. American Airlines representatives replied to complaints on Twitter in 12 minutes, sending more than 1,000 Tweets on an average day, in a study by travel intelligence company Skift. Microsoft’s video game brand Xbox holds the “Most Responsive Brand on Twitter” Guinness Word Record for answering thousands of questions a day in an average time of 2 minutes and 42 seconds.

An average response time across industries is closer to 11 hours, according to The Sprout Social Index, a December 2013 report that analyzed social media trends. Still, it’s faster than privately emailing customer service, as proven in a BBC experiment.

In addition to speed, accessing customer support digitally is convenient. You can send a quick 140-character Tweet from anywhere. It beats cradling a phone on your shoulder while you wait on hold, shushing everyone around you for fear of missing the long-distance service agent pick up.

But the most alluring reason for lodging a complaint on Twitter or Facebook is that social media is public. Jaded consumers can argue that traditional approaches for accessing customer service are easy for companies to shove aside. One pesky customer means little in the long run. But a complaint posted online for the world to see can seriously hurt a brand’s public image.

Consider the famous “United Breaks Guitars” example. United Airlines baggage handlers damaged a musician’s expensive instrument. For months, customer service representatives refused his claims for compensation. So he recorded a music video about the experience and posted it on YouTube. It went viral, drawing 150,000 views within a day and 5 million in a month. The media picked up on the story and United Airlines had a public relations embarrassment on its hands.

Those without talent or means to protest via music video need not worry. On Twitter, all of your followers will see your message, unless you choose to make the conversation private. And so will the company and anyone who searches its Twitter handle—an important point for those without many followers.

There are strategies to increase the message’s exposure: “Be sure to include the most shocking or interesting bit of information,” recommends social media expert Lauren Dugan in an article on website AllTwitter. To get more notice, she suggests tagging other accounts in the tweet, like “prominent journalists, consumer advocacy groups, [and] local politicians.”

These tactics sound aggressive, even threatening: Address our grievances quickly and generously, or else. On the one hand, many customers believe they have a right to good service and deserve fair treatment. When they can’t get it in-person or over the phone, it seems justifiable to turn to a sphere where companies will feel obligated to respond.

But will this digital strategy render the old ways obsolete? Will it become a permanent societal expectation: To have complaints heard and resolved, consumers must share them in a public space? Will people unwilling to sacrifice privacy—those uncomfortable broadcasting their medical bills on Facebook, for instance—be out of luck?

On the flip side, consumers now have an easy public venue to blow things out of proportion and to dishonestly represent a brand, product or business. How should a company appropriately refute a false claim that’s been posted on a social network? They can delete the post, ignore it, respectfully disprove it in a public or private message, or, in extreme scenarios, seek legal action.

Despite the risks, there are definitely positives surrounding the digital customer service trend for companies. A business can use social media for customer support to boost its reputation: to show that it cares about its patrons and to prove that it can adapt to technological innovation. And it can send individuals and large audiences important messages fast. Salesforce outlines seven types of customer support tweets, including the “We’re really sorry,” “Bad stuff is happening” and “Here’s a quick fix” tweets.

Consumers should remember that their social media messages to companies don’t always have to be complaints. But let’s face reality: People are more inclined to contact customer service with a criticism than with praise. When that’s the case, consumers don’t have to phrase their sentiments with hostility.

Remember the old saying, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

It’s important to note that many brands don’t respond to every complaint posted on social networks. In fact, 80 percent of consumer inquiries on social networks go unanswered by companies, according to The Sprout Social Index.

For many customers, getting a direct response is not necessarily the point. Rather, they want their friends and followers to see it. Often, they want to warn others to avoid a company or product, much like in a review on Amazon or Yelp, but just targeting people they know. Sometimes complainers just want to commiserate, to start a dialogue about shared experiences.

Nora Dunne

Nora Dunne is a Chicago-based writer whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Metro newspapers and Kirkus Reviews. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 2010.

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