Yelling on the Internet (or Why Today’s Customer Service is Teaching Us Bad Habits)

As I was booking my flight Saturday to the GigaOM Structure Conference this Wednesday in NYC, I was reminded of a post I’ve been meaning to write since earlier this Winter.

For context, I love to travel.  New places, new people, new experiences – all awesome.  However, I really really really hate to fly. Nothing against heights or being in the air – I just don’t like the idea of being controlled in one seat for an exceptionally long period of time.

Because of that – I try and alleviate all other factors that could cause me stress during travel.  My TripIt account keeps me up to date on all my flight information, I check flight updates before I leave to the airport, and I show up at least 2 hours ahead of time (I know its crazy.)

Just after Christmas, I was flying from FLL to spend New Year’s in NYC – unfortunately into one of the worst Blizzards ever in the Northeast.  Given the weather conditions, I was checking the flight status on my phone – prepared to make changes if needed (even if that meant not going to NYC, but just getting out of FLL.)

While flights before and after my flight had been delayed or cancelled – my flight and about 3 others that day were still on time.  I called my friends in NYC and heralded my genius in choosing the correct flight to get into the city.

However, that all changed 2.5 hours before the flight – when I was already in the car on the way to the airport when my TripIt account notified me that my flight had now been cancelled.


Logically, I tried to call JetBlue to move my flight.  Not in a hurry, happy to wait on hold – just wanted to talk to someone about other options.  Unfortunately, each time I called, I was told the call volume was too high to even put me on hold – but instead just told me to call back later.


Being frustrated – I then tweeted:

Thinking no worries – JetBlue is super busy – I’ll book my own flight and then call back later to get a refund.

Not a minute later, I get a direct message from @JetBlue asking for my confirmation number and to help.  Three messages, a few confirmation numbers, and zero dollars later – I find myself with a bunch of refunds and back on a flight back to SFO the same night (no one was getting to NYC that weekend.)

Awesome right?  I thought so – from my tweet stream:

However, as I sat in the plane of the tarmac, I realized that JetBlue had just taught me a horrible, horrible lesson in how to handle a problem.

For background, one of my early jobs was teaching swimming to children.  At 15, managing a class of 2 -6 kids is no small task, especially when all the kids really just want to splash around.  Had it not been for a piece of advice my first boss Michelle gave me – I probably would not have survived.

It went something like this:

“In the beginning, the kids will try and test you – to see how far they can push you.  Remember two things: 1. Always reward good behavior in public and 2. More importantly, don’t reward bad behavior with attention – ignore it in public and then punish later in private.”

That simple piece of advice solved 90% of my classroom management issues – as the kids quickly learned that by doing the right thing – they were more apt to get the positive attention (and free play time) that they wanted.

For the 10% of fringe cases, there were other solutions – but at least the entire group was not encouraged to adopt that type of behavior.

How does this apply to JetBlue?

By responding to my Twitter outburst and ignoring my phone call – JetBlue had just rewarded my complaining.  More than that – they taught me that if I want something done – I should just publicly lambast them on the Internet because they’re not going to pick-up my phone call.

To date, the way to deal with this problem has been to spend more on integrated customer service software – enabling agents to more easily deal with complaints on social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.

However, from a customer service perspective – JetBlue (and many other companies) are simply causing a race to the bottom by creating a system that rewards people who publicly complain (and at the expense of people who want to follow the rules) which will eventually lead to complete chaos.

How do you fix this?

Start by working on opening up traditional communication channels with your customers or improving the ones you currently have.  For startups leverage tools like Olark and have an 800 number on your site.  For corporations, hire more support staff or work on improving your legacy software to make your workers more efficient.

This doesn’t mean that companies should ignore social media – you always have the 10% of users who are going to cause problems no matter what.  But by improving efficiency on public channels while ignoring the private ones – companies are simply going to push more users to broadcast their complaints as loud and wide as possible.

Or a Michelle put it:

Remember to reward the well behaved ones.  It’ll help you keep your sanity.


Related Articles:

Published by


I work for True Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund with offices in San Francisco and Palo Alto. We partner with promising entrepreneurs at the earliest stages in the technology market providing hands-on management support to guide our portfolio companies through the challenges of early growth.

  • JoeyInsua

    Adam! Great post man. Completely agree with you that sometimes the way we're taught to handle children works just as good, if not better, when dealing with adults. For all the good that comes from social media, we can't forget that customer service begins and ends with connecting with customers on a more personal level.

  • So true. There have been a few times when I've griped on Twitter to get a company's immediate attention, and it's worked each time. It makes perfect sense – these companies want to satisfy those who have shown they'll stand on their soapbox and slander the company. The fact that you soon thereafter tweeted that JetBlue's customer service rocks is proof that they indeed were right in giving you immediate attention.

    Additionally, the reason for the prompt response via this channel is that the masses aren't yet aware of how effective it can be. I think once there is a tipping point of people also complaining on Twitter, it's efficacy will plummet and companies will cease to respond there.

    In the short term, I'm going to continue voicing my customer complaints on Twitter because it's just so powerful. 🙂