Complaint letters in the 21st century

It’s never been easier to file complaints and it’s never been easier to ignore them, writes Jonathon Parker.

In 2012, Twitter-user @grahamcummings7 sent a tweet to British telecommunications company O2 instructing them to “SUCK DICK IN HELL”. The O2 Twitter account responded by saying “Maybe later, got tweets to send right now”.

Hidden behind layers of cynical public relations and attempts to create ‘positive brand association’, the PR teams of some businesses offer playful ripostes to spurious and frivolous complaints. Yet these responses are anomalous. Many 21st century companies have not adapted to the post-ironic tone of the internet, not knowing when to dismiss certain complaints as spurious and when to take others as genuine. The nature of a complaint letter, as it was once known, has changed, and many businesses have struggled to keep up.

Most responses to complaints from companies seem clinical and automated, rewarding even the most ludicrous complaints with the same blank, inhuman conciliations. In February this year, Twitter-user @ITK_AGENT_VIGO sent a tweet laden with sarcasm to the British Domino’s Pizza Twitter account demanding a refund for burning his penis on a pepperoni pizza. Domino’s responded by instructing the objector to “please email our head office”, claiming “we will look for a way to notify customers of this in the future”.

So much feedback received by companies nowadays is trivial, sarcastic and brusque, and thus is considered disposable. This comes from the simple realisation that every comment made on social media will soon vanish. As a result, do the companies of today not know how to deal with lengthy and substantive criticism?

A couple of weeks ago, I was refused entry to a screening of Kevin Smith’s 1994 film Clerks at the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace in Cremorne. This was merely because I arrived a few minutes after the box office closed (yet still before the screening, scheduled to commence at 9 p.m., began). Later that night, in a state of mild annoyance, I posted this message on the Orpheum’s Facebook page:

“I am not complaining about the employee who turned us away, because he was clearly following the arbitrary rule mandated by his superiors. Instead, I question the arbitrariness of this rule. There was clearly someone still sitting behind the box office, and it only takes the push of one button to re-open the till…Obviously there would be employees working until well after the completion of the last session, so I am confused as to why you would capriciously close the box office two hours before the end of your shift…In an age when the cinematic art, as an economic venture, is being threatened by piracy, I find it peculiar that you would turn down hundreds of dollars of business.”

I fully expect this post to be ignored and dispatched into the sidereal void. Yet as a patron of your fine establishment for many years, I sincerely hope it is not.”

The Orpheum did, indeed, respond to my complaint. Their only consolation was an apology that my night “didn’t go to plan” and confirmed the screening of Clerks commenced at “exactly 9:10” – nearly ten minutes after
we arrived.

Social media has expedited the ubiquity of outrage, allowing anyone to whine about any discommodes at any time in the day – as long as that complaint is expressed in fewer than 140 characters. Social media, through its public accessibility and visibility, makes companies more accountable for their actions. It is an economic imperative for businesses to respond to open Twitter and Facebook messages as quickly as possible for fear of public shame and reprisal; a level of accountability not facilitated by a written letter or telephone conversation.

However, Twitter and Facebook encourage terse responses rather than sincere apologies and compensatory offers. Social media lacks the personality of the human voice communicated through a telephone conversation, or the rumination of a written letter. In the transition from old forms of communication to the new digimodern media, contemporary businesses have struggled to suitably remedy the complaints tweeted their way.

In August this year, Reddit user ‘lyndy’ posted a photograph of a letter she received from United Airlines. After submitting a complaint letter to the airline, the letter she received in response was clearly a template which failed to fill in the specific details of lyndy’s case. The letter featured such gems of insincerity as “(SPECIFIC EVENT) will be used for coaching and training our employees” and “(CUSTOMER NAME), I ask that you allow us another opportunity to serve you”. In contrast, many years ago, I wrote a handwritten letter complaining to Smith’s Chips about opening a packet of Salt & Vinegars which lacked the Tazo promised by the package. In response, I received a personalised letter and the full collection of Tazos.

A recent study by Bluewolf, a global business consulting firm, found that 58 per cent of people who tweeted about a bad experience with a company received no response from the offending company. Instead of remedying complaints, many companies have focussed on using social media to actively promote their brand. In this paradigm, companies reward people who approve, rather than castigate, their products. In 2012, Dutch airline KLM selected eight ‘random’ Twitter followers and gave them a free return flight to Amsterdam. The only thing the ‘winners’ had to do was write a positive tweet about the airline. Just as everyday people are encouraged to recommend a product to their friends, celebrities are paid tens of thousands of dollars to endorse certain brands.

The public sphere has morphed into a maelstrom of digimodernist praises and complaints, emerging and disappearing from Twitter – and thus the popular consciousness – in an instant. Just as the Hey Hey It’s Saturday blackface folk devils faded into oblivion, so will the disgraceful story about the Brazilian man who was refused a job as a barista for being black. People will be outraged at something new, and forget about what outraged them a week ago. The complaint letter of the present day has thus been reduced to a form of amusing but ultimately empty public dialogue between customers and companies, with no feasible remedy or outcome. Perhaps, the Orpheum disregarded my complaint because they know I will soon forget the mild inconvenience they caused. The lure of $5 tickets on Mondays is too tempting to repudiate.

To the credit of the Orpheum, my complaint post was not deleted, suggesting freedom of speech still has a place in society. Even though my complaint was not really important in the slightest, I would have liked a few free tickets.