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How Twitter Became the Unlikely Hero in a Rental Car Fiasco

You’ve seen a friend angry-tweeting at an airline because a hurricane caused a flight delay, a futile attempt. But one Avis customer turned to Twitter...

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This story originally appeared on NerdWallet

You’ve seen a friend angry-tweeting at an airline because a hurricane caused a flight delay, a futile attempt. But one Avis customer turned to Twitter after days of frustration and a bogus rental car bill — all because he said Avis “stole” his rental car — and it worked.

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Tarikh Campbell, who works in Boston as a program manager for Microsoft, experienced a peculiar situation after renting a vehicle from Avis for a trip to his childhood hometown in Teaneck, New Jersey. He checked the car out of the lot just fine, but as he went to grab his car from the driveway where it was parked, it was gone.

Fearing it was stolen, Campbell reviewed footage from a neighbor’s security cameras and saw the car had been towed, but for no explainable reason. While a bizarre incident on its own, perhaps more troubling is how little support he said he received from Avis in uncovering why it was towed and where it went.

Avis customer service representatives gave him phone numbers of employees who could escalate the issue, but Campbell says one number was out of service and the other didn’t take voicemails despite no answer. Of the representatives he did talk to, Campbell says they didn’t know about the towing, yet told him he would be liable if the car wasn’t returned.

It wasn’t until after he filed a police report, spent hours on hold, was told by Avis he was liable and was charged the full rental price plus late fees that Campbell eventually learned that Avis itself took the car. So Campbell took to Twitter.

When you’ve exhausted every other outlet, turn to Twitter

“A relative suggested I take my case to Twitter,” Campbell tells NerdWallet. “Viral tweets have gotten the attention of authority in the past, so maybe Avis’ account would reach out to me.”

Campbell's tweet includes the warning, "Traveler beware!"

Campbell outlined his predicament in a roughly 30-tweet thread. The original tweet garnered over 30,000 retweets and likes. Replies included people sharing their own rental car horror stories and other brands reaching out, like Avis’ competitor Hertz.

Hertz responded by tweet: "We're here to get you there!"

His strategy paid off in not just grabbing the internet’s attention, but also grabbing the attention that Campbell actually wanted: Avis customer service.

“In the six days after my car was taken, Avis never directly reached out to me, despite me calling both corporate and their brand number and being on hold for hours,” he says. “They reached out to me for the first time after the tweet went viral.”

Avis offered to refund his charges, plus reimburse additional costs such as his airport ride. The company also offered a future credit.

However, social media isn’t always the answer

While Twitter’s power came through for Campbell, it may not always be the best way to get customer support. Some say it can unfairly hurt businesses and might not be effective for customers, either.

A single negative post could be debilitating for small businesses

Social media can amplify customer complaints, which in Campbell’s situation got him compensation and shed light on rental car company practices. But it can also damage a business’s reputation.

“Today, upset clients can air their complaints and dirty laundry on social media for all to see, whether it’s true or not — or even if they were an actual client or not,” says Chris Atkins, who runs a boutique luxury fishing company in Central America. “These comments have the power to turn away potential clients, damage reputations and branding, or sour relationships. Social media can be very aggravating and misleading.”

Handling private matters on a public channel might not work

If your interaction involves exchanging payment information, confirmation numbers or other private matters, a public post might end up complicating things. Travelers might end up publicly posting sensitive information, and companies might incur more brand damage if a drawn-out public conversation ensues.

Reasons to use social media as a customer service tool

Of course, Twitter worked for Campbell, and it can work for you too.

Social media typically generates faster responses

Terika Haynes, a professional travel planner, says that while she’ll start with the phone or email, she uses social media for both herself and her clients.

“Social media is effective because the complaint is front and center in front of millions of people and makes the issue time-sensitive,” she says. “Companies have no choice but to respond and react quickly before a bad situation goes viral.”

Haynes says she typically gets a faster response on social media than by phone. And the data bears that out. A 2021 study of 3,000 travel and hospitality companies by customer service company Netomi found that — at least for airlines — response times for Twitter are far faster than those for email.

The company conducted a test for its Customer Service Benchmark Report and found the average response time among airline companies was 16.36 hours for email, but was 8.52 hours for Twitter. What’s more, Netomi found that 22% of all travel and hospitality companies responded to direct Twitter messages within the first 15 minutes.

While you can probably afford to wait a few days to find out the status of your online shopping order, travel companies often don’t have the luxury of time.

“Hearing ‘email us and we will come back to you within seven days’ isn’t really helpful if you’re stuck without your promised rental car,” says Charlotte Sheridan, who runs a digital marketing agency in the U.K. “Most often angry tweets are sent when someone is in crisis, like they’re at the airport, or just arrived at the hotel,” she says. “They want an answer quickly, and they want to feel heard.”

It’s easier to get in touch

Finding a company’s customer support line can be complicated enough, but navigating the phone tree to find a real human can be even harder. As long as the brand has a social media presence, getting in touch is as simple as tagging it in a public post or sending a direct message.

Good public customer service can boost a company’s credibility

While Avis didn’t look good in Campbell’s situation, some travel companies have found their social media presence to be a useful outlet to connect with customers.

“It is a great opportunity where they can use the instance of a complaint to turn things around and show the masses how well they respond to customer questions and concerns,” Haynes says.

Did social media actually solve the towed rental car saga?

Campbell still doesn’t fully understand how his car was towed from the driveway where it was parked. An Avis Budget Group spokesperson said by email that the company conducted an internal investigation and found that the incorrect tow was triggered by an administrative error on a previous rental.

“Mistaken tows occur infrequently, but we are taking steps to prevent situations like this from occurring at all in the future,” the spokesperson said.

Thankfully, Twitter saved Campbell from a rental car bill and also ensured he wasn’t liable for a many-thousand-dollar rental car.

“At the time, I felt like I had no resources left,” he says. “And now I’m thinking, ‘Thank God for social media.’ While social media can be used for a number of ways that aren’t always so good, it’s a way to leverage companies to do good. It makes brands vulnerable, and if a company is mistreating customers, then social media is a way to amplify those concerns.”

The article How Twitter Became the Unlikely Hero in a Rental Car Fiasco originally appeared on NerdWallet.