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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

TikTok’s Format Breeds Sassy Customer Service

In late October, Jack Remmington left a swimming session at a London pool and emerged into “what can only be described as a deluge.” Luckily, the 28-year-old presenter and content creator had spent £20 ($23) on a brand new Uniqlo umbrella earlier that day. He popped it up and got out his phone to document the downpour. As he was filming, the umbrella snapped.

When he was safe and dry, Remmington uploaded a clip of himself screaming and struggling in the rain to TikTok, where he has almost 66,000 followers who enjoy his hyperbolic humor. He didn’t tag Uniqlo, but he did tag the brand on Twitter, a space where social media managers tend to respond to customer complaints. A day or so later, the brand hadn’t responded to his tweet—but Remmington did get a response on TikTok. Uniqlo stitched his video and posted a clip of an umbrella with human eyes looking shiftily from side to side. It seemed to be saying—Remmington thinks—“Oops, haha, what have we done?”

On TikTok, customer service isn’t always that serviceable. Budget airline Ryanair has 1.8 million followers on the app, thanks to its practice of responding sassily to passengers. An August video with 14.4 million views is captioned, “When you realize that no matter how much they complain, they will always fly with you” and features a laughing plane. (Ryanair did not respond to a request for comment.)

Ryanair regularly uses a TikTok filter that lets users overlay an inanimate object with eyes and a mouth—Uniqlo used the same filter in its response to Remmington. It seems that the airline’s success may be ushering in a new era of sassy service. When Ryanair first joined Twitter in 2013, the brand’s tweets were sincere and straightforward; at the time, most company accounts were polite and professional. That’s changed. In 2014, The New Inquiry documented the rise of something it called “weird corporate Twitter,” where company accounts spoke in the voice of those run by individuals. As brands have migrated over to TikTok, things have seemingly only become more extreme. But does that always fly with customers?

“I’m not really sure how it sits with me, to be honest,” says Remmington, who felt both that Uniqlo’s joke was funny and that it was made at his expense. “I don’t mind being laughed at; I always make myself the butt of the joke. But it’s a bit like, ‘Oh, so you aren’t going to resolve this issue, you’re just gonna make a laugh out of it?’ Which is just a bit weird.”

It seems that Uniqlo was trying out a bold new social media strategy, and when WIRED reached out to the company, a spokesperson said, “On this occasion, our response was not up to standard. We are currently reviewing how we handle customer complaints on social network sites to ensure this does not happen again.” The brand removed its TikTok response to Remmington.

Remmington has also since received a DM from the brand on Instagram, explaining that alongside the video, Uniqlo had meant to privately message Remmington and offer him a replacement umbrella and an apology gift. The individual who messaged Remmington expressed familiarity with his TikTok content—it appears they knew he often joked about himself and they were simply attempting to join in. Remmington was happy with the apology and says he bears no ill will toward the brand.

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All’s well that ends well, but will faux pas like this become increasingly common as companies try to navigate TikTok? Language app Duolingo has 5 million followers on the video platform who love “unhinged” content featuring its owl mascot, but in May one of the brand’s social media managers issued an apology after joking about Amber Heard’s domestic abuse testimony on the app.

In September—after an unpopular redesign left its users annoyed—Duolingo responded sarcastically to a customer saying they were leaving the app with a popular TikTok sound: “Oh no, it’s Melanie. That’s a shame. She’s really nice.” The video’s caption reads, “Y’all really want me to cry when you say you’re leaving” and includes the hashtags #boybye and #leavemealone. A comment under the video says, “Glad you care about your customers …” The comment has almost 500 likes.

For Duolingo, the mixup seems to be that the company doesn't see TikTok as a place to address customer issues. “Our support team often replies directly to help customers resolve issues on Twitter,” says Katherine Chan, the company's head of social media and influencer strategy, but doesn't use TikTok in the same way. As for that #leavemealone response, Chan adds, “we were responding to one learner who insists on calling us a chicken, when in fact, Duo is clearly and owl.” 

On Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, brands can open their DMs to everyone, but on TikTok they can’t. TikTok’s safeguarding rules mean that users can’t message accounts that don’t follow them, so the app is not the natural home of customer service. Perhaps it’s understandable that companies therefore primarily use TikTok to joke around, but this can cause problems when they’re faced with legitimate customer complaints.

Sphurti Sewak is a marketing and logistics teaching assistant at Florida International University who has researched the way brands use memes on social media. She says that companies first adopted sassy personas on Twitter—Wendy’s, for example, has been “roasting” its competitors on the app since 2017. Sewak believes Ryanair doesn’t deserve credit for adopting a bold social media strategy, arguing “they probably followed Wendy’s and just took it a step further.” But now that Ryanair has seen so much success, other brands might go a step further than a step further, angering their customers.

“Sassy replies drive a lot of consumer engagement, but it can definitely be hit-or-miss,” Sewak says, “Budget airlines like Ryanair may be able to get away with being rude because they have the advantage of offering what their competitors are not offering.” For other brands, rudeness can be riskier. “Being sassy is one thing, but being consistently rude is another. Ultimately customers are the ones keeping you in business,” Sewak says. Her research has found that some people find this kind of social media behavior inappropriate and stop giving their business to brands—she herself is one of these people.

Remmington would have had no complaints if Uniqlo had sassed him publicly and apologized privately, and he is happy now that this is the case. Though it’s a myth that brand social media accounts are run by interns, ultimately the people behind these accounts are just human beings who can and do make mistakes. Still, it seems that face-to-face interaction can often beat account-to-account. Shortly after seeing Uniqlo’s TikTok, Remmington returned the umbrella to the store where he bought it and got a full refund.

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