What happens when a powerful online tool blows up in a brand’s face?
Before social media, our mistakes were contained. A disappointed customer might tell a few friends about his experience, but for the most part, it was as challenging to cultivate a negative reputation as it was to build a positive one. Thanks to social media, our customers are able to share their individual experiences—both good and very, very bad—on a large and powerful platform.
All it takes is one angry consumer or one misguided employee to put your business in the hot seat. We were only days into 2012 when Papa John’s found itself in trouble due to the act of a lone employee. Upon taking orders, employees routinely enter some identifying characteristics into their system for reference, such as “girl in the red shirt” or “guy with two kids.” Unbeknownst to one employee who decided to disparage a customer with the racial slur “lady chinky eyes,” these entries print out on the receipt. An image of the receipt was posted on Twitter and quickly went viral, creating a national disaster for the pizza giant.
This poses as much a challenge for local businesses as national brands. Recently, the owner of Boners BBQ, an Atlanta-based restaurant, took it upon himself to aggressively disparage a customer on the company’s Facebook page for writing a negative review on Yelp and allegedly leaving no tip. While these incidents tend to fade quickly from our memories, they have a long life online. Search Boners BBQ on Google and you’ll find that the third and fourth Google results are negative articles on Huffington Post and ABC regarding the incident.
To avoid ending up as social media fodder, you need to prepare your staff. You have to help them understand that any private interaction in the store, on the phone, online, or in email can potentially become a topic of public conversation—and contention. Taking the time to train your team can go a long way to mitigate these challenges, but you also need to carefully consider whom you hire. Just as your customers have greater reach than ever before, so does the impact that a single employee can have on your business. You can train your employees to do a better job; sadly, you cannot always help them to be decent people.
They don’t call it the World Wide Web for nothing: Remember that your goofs will be broadcast far and wide.
While proper training can go a long way, it’s still possible that you will make a mistake. Even though it may not be on the same scale as the examples above, your customers will be watching to see what you do next. What matters most is how you handle yourself. If you or any member of your staff is accurately called out for doing something wrong, respond as quickly as possible and apologize. Offer to make it right and do what you can to take the conversation with your customer offline. Learn from the experience and ensure that you do not make the same mistake twice. Be careful not to censor what your customers say online in these cases. With profanity being the obvious exception, deleting unfavorable posts on your Facebook page can do more to stoke the fire than extinguish it.
If a customer is wrong or, worse yet, trying to abuse the power of social media for his or her own gain, be careful. Be sure to weigh the advantages of being right against how your reaction will be perceived by your customers. Do everything within reason to help, stand your ground, but no matter how angry the customer might get, keep your emotions in check. You don’t want to be at the mercy of your customers, but you certainly want to understand and respect their new power—even when they are abusing it.
This shouldn’t dissuade you from using social media. It just requires that you know the pitfalls and plan accordingly. Ensure that your staff members understand the potential ramifications of their actions. If you’ve been at it a while and have built the right relationships with your online fans, you may even find that your biggest advocates step in and come to your defense. Do right by your customers. Do it as often as you can, and it will come back to you in spades if—or when—you get it wrong.