Companies need to understand and manage the rising threat of online public complaining. There is ample incentive, because the best ways to respond, and to prevent complaints from recurring, apply not just to the Internet.
When customers believe that a company has treated them badly, they may take public action aimed at hurting it. Consider Dave Carroll, a musician who discovered that his $3,500 Taylor guitar was damaged — its neck had been broken — during baggage handling on a United Air Lines flight. At first he alerted several of the airline’s employees at the arrival airport, but none of them had authority to handle his complaint; moreover, they gave Carroll no guidance on how to proceed. Thus began nine months of running the company’s customer service gauntlet. Repeatedly passed from one person to the next, Carroll was finally informed that he was ineligible for any compensation. Frustrated, angered and feeling that he’d exhausted all customer service options, Carroll wrote a song about his experience and also created a music video, which he posted on YouTube in mid-2009.1 The lyrics included the verse “I should have flown with someone else, or gone by car, because United breaks guitars.” The video amassed 150,000 views within one day, five million by a month later and at this writing more than nine million. The story of the song’s success and the public relations humiliation for United Air Lines was reported in media all over the world. Finally, United offered to compensate Carroll for the damage and promised to reexamine its policies.
The Leading Question
How should companies respond to, or prevent, irate customers’ online public complaints?
- “A double deviation” — the initial failure followed by failed resolution attempts — is usually critical.
- Perceived betrayal (as opposed to dissatisfaction) drives potential online complainers to act.
- The company’s attempt at recovery should be swift and its apology perceived as sincere.
Another video recently making the e-mail forwarding rounds of the Internet featured an unhappy consumer who happened to be a U.S. marine based in Iraq. Dressed in combat fatigues out in the desert and holding his machine gun, he tells the viewer how Hewlett-Packard demanded to be paid to tell him how to fix his inoperable HP printer.