Ha! I said. That reminds me of that column idea I had the other day -- about whether social media is turning us into Whiner Nation. Or Whiner World, for that matter -- and whether big, consumer-facing businesses have even the slightest idea of how to synthesize the "information" provided to them by all of these newly empowered whiners.
The answer to the first question is "yes." And to the second? No.
What got me first thinking about Whiner Nation was not even my experience with a certain car dealership, which I wrote a column about several months ago. In that instance, I suffered Twitter remorse for tweeting negatively about them. Had they committed a potentially fatal omission in servicing our car? Yes. But did I find social media tools to be too easy an avenue to vent my frustration? You betcha. At another time, in another world, I would've vented to a friend, one-on-one, over the telephone -- in addition, of course, to trying to rectify the problem directly with the dealer, which I eventually did. In that instance, I realized that the urge to use social media to vent can be the itch that won't go away. That doesn't mean we should scratch it.
What actually got me thinking about Whiner Nation was another bad customer experience I've had recently, with an institution with which my family has done a lot of business. Having suffered the psychological ravages of Twitter remorse over the car dealership, this time I'll keep it between us and them.
However, it occurred to me that the default for a fair number of people is becoming to complain about our mistreatment from Big Business in public. Even though there are many lousy customer service organizations out there, such complaining is not necessarily a good thing. As there's a lot of emotion involved, and the tools are easy to use, such outbursts tend to warp the discussion.
Then the question for business becomes learning how to balance the outrage with the reality. Though the problem of interpreting the true impact of customer dissatisfaction has existed for a long time -- I'm sure more people fill out customer service surveys when they are mad about their service then when they are happy -- the ease of use of social media tools, and their public, viral nature, brings this bias to a whole new level that companies are probably only starting to cope with.
Take HSBC Reviews. Set up by a U.K. Web design company called ThruSites, the idea of HSBC Reviews is to actually solicit tweets about HSBC, and assign those tweets a pass/fail grade. The results are entirely predictable: on the site's pass/fail-o-meter, HSBC has about a 95% fail, and the home page includes such memorable anti-HSBC tweets as "Horrible experiences at HSBC over the past 6 months reached a tipping point. Opening a new account elsewhere today." (If you check out the site, you'll see that the grade-assigning process seems to be the work of some bot that can't interpret language well, but suffice to say that most of the tweets can be legitimately labeled as negative. ThruSites says it concocted the app "just for fun.")
So what does this say about HSBC? Maybe not as much as you'd think. If I were HSBC, giving the page a mere glance might set off alarm bells. But let's not forget that the site, and Twitter itself, are set up for easy venting, and such easy venting means less than the carefully crafted complaint, be it a lengthy blog post or a consumer's decision to spend an hour writing a letter to the company she feel ripped her off.
Even though I'm sure HSBC has its share of customer service issues -- what big bank doesn't? -- reason should prevail here. Companies have to start to assign value to customer service complaints along a new measure, taking into account what lengths the consumer went to to complain. In that context, Twitter is somewhat worth watching to see how quickly a message spreads, though much of the whining may be nothing more than blather.
Interpreting consumer complaints made via social media is all a matter of degrees, and, per usual, the speed with which consumers are adopting social media is, at least for now, making it harder for companies to measure the correct temperature. In the meantime, welcome to Whiner Nation.