Quit Yer Whinin’! A Customer’s Responsibility in the Social Media World

by Ken Mueller on November 4, 2011 · 21 comments

President of the United States Theodore Roosev...

Just because you have a gun, doesn’t mean you have to use it.

There, I said it. And perhaps the title of this piece is a misnomer because there are no hard and fast rules about how customers are supposed to act (and remember, ALL of us are customers at some point)…but I sure wish there were. We spend a lot of time talking about how businesses need to use Social Media to provide great customer service and handle complaints. But what is the role of the customer? Just because we can complain via Twitter or Facebook, should we?

This makes me think of Teddy Roosevelt and his admonition (taken from a West African proverb) to,

Speak softly and carry a big stick.

The problem is that with Social Media so handy, and smartphones in our pockets, we all carry big sticks. Or what I like to call “megaphones”.  We have power. And with a few high profile studies of consumers who have brought businesses to their knees via a single tweet, we have become impatient. Poor customer service? Tweet about it! Post it on Facebook!

But this troubles me. Should this really be our first reaction, especially in relation to small local businesses?

About a month ago I saw an exchange on Twitter that just irritated me. It got under my skin for a few reasons. You can see the exchange below, and let me preface it by saying that I merely observed. I have not contacted any of the parties involved so I don’t know the end result of the exchange. I’ve also redacted the names of some involved because my goal, as my friend Gini Dietrich says, is to “attack the idea, not the people.”

As you read the following exchange on Twitter, remember a few things:

1. The person starting the exchange is a public relations professional.

2. The restaurant in question is a rapidly growing chain of fast food restaurants, and this particular franchise had been open less than a month.

3. The third person who jumped in is listed as a small business and communications coach who offers Social Media services.

Smashburger tweets

Now, here are my observations:

1. I believe the PR Pro went too far. Did she let her feelings known to the manager at this particular franchise? If not, why not? And if so, why then escalate things online? And I think we overuse, and are too quick to use, the hashtag #Fail. Also, it was her first visit. I don’t know how bad the service is, but sometimes stuff happens.

2. The restaurant responded properly. Not only did they respond to her tweet, they responded very quickly (I believe it was in less than an hour, possibly within minutes). And they offered to help.

3. The PR Pro’s response was again out of hand. I don’t like reading tone and inflection into the text of tweets, but that’s all we have. And my perception was that she was being a bit uppity by questioning their request for a DM. Social Media 101 dictates that when you respond to a negative comment or complaint, you start the customer service process online and in the same public realm in which the complaint was made, and then you move the conversation offline, perhaps via email or phone. I believe the restaurant did everything properly here, and she called them on it. I advise all of my clients to do exactly what Smashburger did. She was wrong for questioning them on this.

4. The Business/Communications Coach fanned the flames. This third party observer chimed in and praised her for “creating a ‘case study quality’ tweet about whether a biz gets it or not!” Sorry, but he’s wrong. Yes, it is a case study, but not the one he’s thinking. It’s a case study in how NOT to use Twitter as a tool of complaint.

5. The PR Pro again responds improperly. She retweets the Biz/Comm coach’s tweet and says “Yes! Transparency is key.” This is not an issue of transparency. Even if the restaurant had responded to her the first time via DM, it’s not a matter of transparency. They were quite transparent in their response. Transparency doesn’t mean that the entire conversation has to happen publicly. Have we really come that far? Would transparency dictate that I reveal the names of the other parties involved in this situation? No, I don’t think so.

I’ve actually been sitting on this post for quite a few weeks but it came to mind because of something that happened locally yesterday. A popular regional restaurant opened up their first location in my city (their 6th overall). There was a lot of anticipation, and according to the owner (who happens to be a friend), the turnout was much larger than they expected. Sadly, at least one person used their Facebook page to complain about getting back to his office only to find it wasn’t the right burrito. The tone of the complaint was rather bitter, and again led me to believe that he never called them to complain. There were long lines and long waits, wouldn’t he think to check his order before he leaves?

I believe that our responsibility as consumers is to try to resolve things privately before using more public social channels. And even if we use public channels it should be more along the lines of, “Hey I had some problems in your store today, I’d love to chat”, as opposed to just calling the business out publicly and trying to shame them. Just because a company is using Twitter and Facebook, it doesn’t mean we have to hammer them with our big sticks. This is why so many small businesses are afraid to jump into Social Media.

Yes, businesses need to be prepared for negative comments and have a plan for how to handle them. In both of these cases, I believe both restaurants did a great job. But I don’t think either of them should have had to deal with our foot stomping and public temper tantrums. After all, that’s what they really look like to the rest of us.

Perhaps we need to take a cue from singer Dave Carroll of “United Breaks Guitars” fame. We hold him up as a hero of the consumer because he called a major corporation to task for their poor customer service. But what we forget is that when United broke his guitar, he didn’t rush to Twitter and Facebook to trash the airline. He didn’t go right home to record his humorous song and video and post it on YouTube quickly.

No, he first went through the proper channels, behind the scenes, via email and phone calls, and it wasn’t until nine months later that he finally threw his hands in the air and recorded the video that has made him a universal case study in the power of social media. Nine months! I don’t know anyone who has that kind of patience. I certainly don’t.

Just because you have the big stick, doesn’t mean you need to use it. As the old saying goes,

With great power comes great responsibility.

Social Media gives us, the consumer, great power. We need to be careful with that. I believe that speaking softly is not only the right thing to do, but that in the long run it can be more effective.

How quick are you to rush to Twitter or Facebook when you have a complaint? Are you willing to think first, and react a bit more discreetly? As a business, are you ready to respond properly to negative comments and complaints, whether they come privately or publicly?




@kmueller62 Interesting post, but I'm not sure I agree. I didn't see "whining" as part of that exchange.


Sometimes I wonder when I see tweets like the one you mentioned. Is the original intent to get something for it? Is the person who is calling out the company on SM trying to get some kind of compensation, say a free meal? Or are they just looking for a good old fashioned public ass kissing?

I agree the burger joint acted promptly & responsibly. Of course they should ask to switch to DM, could you imagine PR/Pro's reaction if they had been asked to publicly share their contact information?!?!!

I think part of the problem is that we live in such a world of self entitlement. No one thinks of anyone but themselves. Like you said about the burrito place, if its crazy busy take 2 seconds to check your order - common sense.

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I don't agree with bagging companies straight away. calling and getting them to talk to you first is definitely the first action I take. Personally, I have had SO many problems with a local telecommunications company, after many complaints and no feedback I have gotten onto Twitter and they just don't seem to care. Either they think they are too big, or they just don't seem to care how much money (and time) they have taken from me!


Great post. I agree that people are too quick to wield the Social Media stick. That exchange made me want to go to the restaurant, because of how they handled it. I loved the Tom Peter's books, In Search of Excellence, Passion for Excellence, ect, because of the stories of great customer service. When I read about a shinning example I tend to remember it and want to do business with that company. I hope the new chain does well.

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i have a story that relates to this. A few years ago, my Dad got me a birthday cake from Dairy Queen here in town. Now, we live in a pretty small town and there is a good chance that someone knows someone who knows your family. Anyway, Dad lost the receipt that said the cake was paid for.

The man behind the counter starts giving Dad a hard time. It apparently got so bad, that customers came out to find me in the car waiting with Douglas who was a toddler at the time. I had to go in and intervene and leave my son for a moment with the man I was dating.

What i found was a disaster. An employee screaming at my elderly, sick father. I would have had every right to go on Twitter if it would have been around then. What I did was called Dairy Queen headquarters. They were quite embarrassed, and got me in touch with that franchise owner. The owner found the receipt which was marked "PAID" what a really nice woman she was too.

That employee was fired. He had been a problem before so he was done. To make up for it, I was given vouchers for another cake. That year my son's birthday cake was free! That is how you handle a problem. No slugger needed. ;)


Nicely done, Ken. I've thought the same thing for a long time and am glad you finally said it. Sadly the ones who need it the most will probably never read it.

Dave Warren


KenMueller moderator

Oh this new place will do very well. The positive comments far outweighed the negatives. People who complain about long lines on the first day must not understand how business works.

KenMueller moderator

@NancyD68 Exactly. But we hear about the high profile cases, and we want leverage. So we go the easy way and tweet away and trash businesses. That just gets under my skin.


@shonali haha I love the idea that we are too quick to use our big sticks!

KenMueller moderator

@davesace I think you're right. I'd be interested to hear from you about negative comments, and the types of things you see. I actually can't imagine you get too many.


No. I really don't get too many negative comments. The one exception is a particular lady who's gotten angry with me on two occasions. Once when I made a video showing how effective a particular mouse trap was by using a realistic cat toy mouse meeting his demise and another time when I asked my fans for suggestions on how to eliminate rodents from my walls and ceilings. Apparently she's not a big fan of any product that may injure ANY living creature. On both those times my other fans did a good job of coming to my defense! ;-)

KenMueller moderator

@davesace And that's the way it works: the community comes to your defense. Awesome. And yes, there are some people who can never be made happy. Maybe you should release some mice in her house and take video of how she handles it! ;)


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