Before social networking, consumer complaints were limited to a phone call, a letter, or an email to one audience: the company whose product or service they were complaining about. They had little power over the actions the company would take. Would the company give them a refund or other desired result? Would they even respond to the complaint?

The sad truth is that most complaints were never satisfactorily resolved in the favor of the consumer through old media channels. Buyers had very little leverage. Unless the complaint received attention from a large audience – e.g., newspaper or TV media – most companies got away with delivering mediocre products or service. But social media has changed that.

Social networkers are the new global advertisers, evangelists and consumer “watchdogs.”

Facebook Friends and Twitter Followers have become the large audiences that Television, Radio, and Newspapers once supplied. Through social media channels, consumers have dramatically increased their leverage. What used to be a solitary, one-line complaint in an email to Customer Service can now be a 140 character product killer.

Companies who’ve caught on to the power of social media are now carefully monitoring sites, especially Twitter and Facebook pages where audiences can reach the multi-thousands. Dell, Wells, Fargo, and Eddie Bauer are some of the companies who have set up Twitter accounts or Facebook pages (often both) to deal with both consumer accolades and complaints.

Jessica* who had problems getting a refund by Dell found quick success through Twitter. “I emailed Dell customer service repeatedly and got nowhere,” she recalls. She then decided to tweet her frustration on Twitter and heard back from Dell via a Twitter reply in less than 30 minutes. “They took my information and a check was sent in a few days. It was so easy.”

Jessica was successful because she has a lot of Twitter followers, but on Facebook, buyers can receive equal attention through company Facebook group or fan pages, which boast hundreds to thousands of followers (note however that unlike on Twitter, Facebook moderators can delete user posts).

Melanie*  discovered how leaving a comment on the Lands End Facebook page received her the attention and answers she desired much more quickly than if she had called or emailed them. “They not only acknowledged my complaint on their page, but also immediately sent me a private message.”

Successful companies know that customer satisfaction is a big component of company sustainability.  Now that social media makes consumer opinions so transparent, buyers have a lot more power than they used to. This also means that companies need to pay more attention to how they handle consumer complaints – online and through traditional media to avoid social media complaints in the first place. I suspect those companies who are keeping up with the social media bandwidth will fair much better than those who ignore it. News travels much faster and much further today thanks to global networking sites.

*Name changed to protect privacy.