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Complain? Who, me?

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If you've ever managed a corporate social media account - or even just a Facebook page for, say, your biking club - you'll already know that one of the most challenging aspects of the job is to be on call 24/7. Sure, your business or organization may not run the sort of account that lends itself to comments or questions at stupid-o-clock in the night, but if you're doing social right, you need to have a contingency plan in place for when that does happen. Because it will happen, and usually the issues that come up after hours or on the weekends are the ones that could potentially do the most harm to your brand. After all, if the subject of that tweet or post really wasn't such a big deal, the sender wouldn't be bothering to nudge you in the middle of the night.

Then again, there's always that one person who just posts to be a curmudgeon, to complain for the sake of complaining or to pick nits about something that even they admit is probably insignificant. Again, if you've managed an online community, you're probably right now picturing specific folks with whom you regularly interact - and chances are, you realize that despite their making you roll your eyes now and then, there's stuff you can definitely learn from this contingent.

All this long-winded introduction aside, here's my little story. A few weeks ago, I went from being on one side of the equation to the other, turning into one of Those People - those complainers who mention something tiny but potentially pretty embarrassing in public rather than quietly sending an email to a name on a Web page somewhere. Even worse, I did it on a federal holiday. But seriously, check this out:

I was in Chicago over the Independence Day weekend, and on the last of three nights in the (really rather nice) Westin O'Hare found the above typo on a bathroom washcloth. Doing what I do for a living, of course the first thing I did after getting out of the shower was run and find my iPhone, snap a photo and tweet the mistake.

My followers LOL'd, a few folks retweeted it - and then came the official corporate reply from @StarwoodBuzz, the social voice of Westin's holding company Starwood:

Really? Via CoTweet, which is email provider ExactTarget's answer to a corporate social media dashboard and a shortcut to some pretty hefty social automation? Enter the curmudgeon. At that moment, I officially became one of Those People.

Now this started to get real. My followers joined in the complaint chorus - after all, the @StarwoodBuzz reply just looked like a poorly-worded automatic response to the #fail hashtag in my original tweet. A few hours later, I received the standard "follow us so we can continue this over DM" reply. No, guys. I wasn't going to take this conversation over to DM. In my newfound complainer's empowerment, I felt @StarwoodBuzz owed it to me and my followers to say something reasonable and very non-automated - in public.

But wait. Here's the thing; all of this was going down on July 4. Some poor guy's phone was probably buzzing in his pocket at a family Independence Day barbecue, and he probably had to excuse himself, go out to his car and fire up a laptop to deal with me. (I say this from experience; it's happened to me enough times that friends and family don't really mention it any more.) But to Starwood's credit, their reps blew off the barbecue and made it right. The conversation continued over the next few days (yes, I gave up and eventually took it to DM), and somewhere along the way, they asked for, among other info, my mailing address. I replied, the conversation died down, the work week continued and I pretty much forgot about it. Until I got home a few days later to find a package on my doorstep. Containing this.

One cushy Westin bathrobe, plus a handwritten note from Brian, whose stationery lists his title as "Global Brand Leader." Normally I might giggle at a title like that, but given how far he'd gone beyond the call of duty, I'll buy it.

So what - as social media marketers and consumers alike - is there to learn from my Great Hotel Towel Typo Incident? The sarcastic answer might be something along the lines of this: Bully a brand enough, and they'll cave in and give you what they want. But that's not totally true; there are plenty of examples out there of brand bullies that have not only failed to receive their ransom from their targets, but been chastised by those brands' supporters for their ill will. (This, of course, assumes that you've built up a solid supporter base, but that's another topic altogether.)

Instead, maybe the answer is that really great social customer service surprises and delights. If you're protecting your brand on social media, you're probably already doing some pretty extensive monitoring to make sure complaints that need intervention are dealt with, and potential problems in brand sentiment are addressed before they become big issues. That latter category leaves a lot of room to play, whether it's just a nice reply to someone who didn't know you were listening or something as elaborate as a bathrobe in a box.

What's the nicest response you've ever received when engaging with a brand on social media? Have you ever received an out-of-the-blue reply from a company you didn't mention by name - and how did it make you feel? Let us know in the comments.

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