Your Best May Not Be Enough - Managing Customer/Corporate Conflict Online

An image of an angel echidna and a devil echidna on a business echidna's shoulders.

We often talk about how businesses should respond to customers online. We talk about establishing action plans, response protocols, and single-points of contact. We talk about openness and honesty, and we talk about owning up to mistakes and taking action.

But what we don't talk about nearly enough is the responsibility of the customer.

For any business that's struggling with fears about online reputation management, let me just say these two things that will clearly not put your mind at ease.

  1. Just do your best.
  2. That may not be enough.

My mom is a great letter writer. Whenever she's upset about something or has had a negative experience with a company, her first statement is, "I'm going to write them a letter." When I was younger, I used to find it amusing, but as I've grown older and had the fortune of being a part of the growth of the Internet almost since Day 1 (hat tip to my Doctor's Guide to the Internet and LookSmart Canada days!), I can't count how many times her attitude has instilled in me a structure that has prevented me from doing two things:

  1. Being completely unfair to a company
  2. Embarrassing myself

Our on-line world, especially in social media, is one where people are quick to criticize, ready to amplify, and searching for immediate gratification. For many, if they've been wronged in whatever way -- ranging from legitimately being ripped off to being minorly inconvenienced by a slight change in a company's protocol -- then it's "To the Twitters!" Armed with little more than vitriol and hash tags, it's time to start the campaign and right those wrongs.

I'll admit. I've been tempted to tilt against corporate windmills online when I feel I, or someone close to me, has been wronged. But then I think of my mom and her ever-ready pen. And I step away from the keyboard and act like an adult.

Escalating to a public forum is a step in the process if you don't get recognition. But going nuclear immediately rarely is the right step.

Talk it Out

You know what works? Talking to people. Often, it's just a simple matter of reaching out through the proper forums to get resolution. In a retail environment, ask for the manager or use the website's contact forms. Explain your position, discuss the grievance, and see what happens. If that doesn't work, escalate up the chain. And if you still don't get a response, or if the company is being belligerent, then feel free to take to social media.

But that should be the final step.

That doesn't absolve businesses from their responsibilities, though. If you have a Twitter feed, Facebook page, or a contact form on your website, you better make sure it's monitored. If questions are asked in public forums, then you should answer them in public forums -- to the best of your ability. Some items may be proprietary, some may be bound by legalities -- but if that's the case, make sure to explain why you can't answer something. Tell your customers everything you can AND everything you can't -- just give reasons.

And here's the hard truth. Even if you, as a business, do everything right, it may still not be enough. There will still be Keyboard Cowboys and Digital Don Quixotes, who have defined reality through their own prism and no amount of reconcilliation -- short of complete agreement -- will be enough. They're going to post what they post. The best you can do is do your best. It sounds simple, but that's it. You can make honest and earnest efforts to reach out, discuss with the customer their issues, and explain your position and/or come to a resolution. That's it.

Hopefully, the majority of your customers will see your efforts.

Interact at the Point of Contact

Does this mean you should never engage on a public level? Not at all. I firmly believe that the response should be equal to the initial point of contact.

How does this work on a social media level? Simple. If you've had an issue with a restaurant, address it within the confines of that restaurant or through its management. If a party has posted something online that's egregious, offensive, or flat-out wrong, then it's appropriate to reply in a similar fashion.

But -- and especially before all the facts are out -- breaking out the big guns of social media amplification before giving the other party the courtesy of sharing their side of the story is disrespectful and damaging.

(And, on a personal note, you want to keep things in perspective. I'd hate to use a hash tag (say, #tragedy) on my complaint about getting the wrong fast-food order, which shows up next to stories of people actually dying and real-world challenges.)

Give the Good and the Bad

If you're going to be quick to point out flaws, be equally generous with your praise.

This one can be tough. We're naturally  quick to the draw when we feel we've been wronged, or if something doesn't meet our expectations. But for some reason, we're slower to praise. Over the past few year, I've made a concerted effort to recognize good work.

In the past, I'd do it through a better tip. I still do that at restaurants, but I'll also follow up with going to the manager and supervisor if I've received exemplary service. Same for stores, online shopping experiences, and the like. I'll go out of my way to send a note of thanks and praise -- and really, it's not that much out of my way.

Live Your Reputation Each and Every Day

Those are the customers' responsibilities. But business still has to embrace its side of the equation.

I recently read an online interaction where a local establishment was lamenting negative Yelp-like reviews during its opening weekend. A friend of mine added a thought that no review should be written until the reviewer has gone multiple times, had different dishes, and experienced multiple services.

And, in an ideal world, I agree. As a sometimes theatre reviewer, I'm sure my experiences would change over multiple viewings of a production. But the reality is, to quote Mr. Mathers, "you only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow."

So whether you're serving mom's spaghetti or you've been able to attract a potential client to your website, you have to make sure that the experience is right each and every time. You only get one chance most times. While it is true that it would be more fair to give multiple chances to a business, realistically you have multiple options to explore. I like trying new places as a rule -- so it takes a lot for an establishment to earn my repeat business. You've got to be on all the time.

Most customers give you one shot. That's all. 

In the end, while the customer isn't always right, they can be vocal, immediate, and amplified. As a business, all you can do is your best, live up to your word, and make sure you respond correctly and appropriately.

Even then, it may not be enough to win back that customer -- but your responses and your professionalism may be enough to help mitigate the damage they can cause.

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