Thursday, September 10

Creating Crisis: Consumer Experience


Last month, Maytag faced some fallout when it recalled about 46,000 refrigerators under the Maytag, Magic Chef, Performa by Maytag and Crosley brand names, due to a fire hazard. The recall comes on the heels of about 1.6 million similar refrigerators being recalled in March, according to one Associated Press story.

In the wake of the latest recall, Heather B. Armstrong was having a problem with another Maytag product, as she described in her colorful post about life in general. For the most part, and this is not a criticism, it was the kind of post many social media experts or public relations professionals operating in social media would have dismissed (at a glance, unless they have had some experience with mommy bloggers, especially influential ones).

It might have remained dismissed despite Armstong being a popular author and one of the most influential women in the media, but then Armstrong took her complaint to Twitter after a customer service provider shrugged off the warning. On Twitter, she has 1.2 million followers. And on Twitter, Maytag listens.

Every customer service issue is a potential public relations nightmare.

While there are many ways to view the story, ranging from how customer service yields better results or never underestimate who might be on the other end of the phone line or even the concept of "blogger blackmail," the broad based lesson has very little to do with any of that and much more to do with communication integration.

While it used to be companies could assume that customer service calls were private and celebrity/media push back was recoverable by knowing who was placing the call, information is seldom isolated to a single experience. On the contrary, any experience can be shared in real time with hundreds or thousands or millions of other consumers.

Right. That person standing in a long line as two clerks chat up the weekend? There is a near equal chance that they could be tweeting or posting the experience as they wait. Sometimes they do it to kill time. Sometimes they do it to be heard. And sometimes they do it to lead a charge against companies for no reason at all.

This isn't a new challenge as some people claim (investigative news used to do all this for us), but it is growing with frequency and ferocity, even when some claims are unfounded.

Take the recent Feedburner outcry. A small computing error resulted in hundreds of bloggers speculating that Google was no longer counting Friendfeed subscribers because Friendfeed is now owned by Facebook. Or the hype from social media and media coverage about a "massive" boycott against Whole Foods. It's safe to call it hype given that the group has long since puttered out. If anything, it's helped Whole Foods find new customers.

The real questions to be considered are threefold.

Companies might consider that customer service and frontline communication is bumping up against public relations more and more often. Public relations professionals might rethink cheering this direction on because as it will eventually make their service a mere commodity (if everyone is responsible for social media/public relations, then what value will professionals bring to the table as opposed to the call center/online teams that are being developed at some companies). And, long term, consumers might eventually lose as the credibility of orchestrated mass movements occur with enough frequency that tweeting "bad service" becomes as mundane as fire drills at public schools.

None of this is meant to suggest that Armstrong wasn't justified in sharing her experience. (She was, though it might have seemed more genuine had she not warned the company that its lack of action would result in an action.) But just as post-Jericho and -Veronica Mars show cancellation protests lost steam, there may be a day when customer complaints and public outcry become so commonplace, they just don't resonate.

Who knows? That might already be becoming the case, given the outcry over Ikea fonts.

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