The Consumer's Bully Pulpit

October 14, 2011

By Matt Michel

It starts as the same old story.  A homeowner hires a contractor and things go south. 

The homeowner becomes bitter and tells everyone he knows about his experience.  The contractor tries to fix things and finally declares the homeowner to be unreasonable.  He quits returning calls and digs in his heels.  The homeowner contacts the manufacturer, who warrants the product, but not the work of the contractor.  Dead end.

Uh Oh, This Homeowner's Different
Unfortunately for the contractor and manufacturer, this homeowner was tech-savvy.  The homeowner started an Internet gripe site.  It's more than your typical free vanity site.  It's well-designed.

Bitter and apparently with lots of time on his hands, the homeowner provides a detailed narrative of his experience with lots of facts, documents, and plenty of supporting photographs.  It's devastating to the manufacturer and its dealers.  It would be difficult to imagine anyone who visited the site buying the product.

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid
Rather than do what it takes to make the homeowner go away, the manufacturer decided to sue over the site.  The manufacturer probably expected the homeowner to pack up his tent and shut down.  Wrong.

"We could lose everything," said the homeowner.  Yet, instead of backing down, he went public and recruited a consumer watchdog agency to take up his case as a test of free speech in the Internet age.

Nothing Like Calling Attention to Problems
The publicity brought the homeowner lots of attention.  The story's been featured on television stations.  It's been carried by the wire services.  A national radio program devoted a segment to the story of the homeowner.  The Internet trade press has picked up on the story, reporting about the free-speech-in-the-Internet-age aspect.

With the added publicity, other disgruntled customers of the manufacturer and its dealers have found the site.  The few positive comments on the site's message boards are overshadowed by the many horror stories reported.  Now, other homeowners have stepped forward to chronicle their experience with the company, in detail, with pictures of course.

The Cost of Stubbornness
Attorneys who have reviewed the case for the trade press feel the lawsuit has little merit. 

"This is free speech that the company being complained about is trying to prevent by flexing its monetary muscles," summed up one attorney for the trade press.

The manufacturer and contractor are in a box.  The missed a number of opportunities to buy off the homeowner.  Now it's probably too late.  Their own stubbornness might very well cost them their business.

The Internet Has Changed Everything
In the past, a disgruntled customer might complain to their friends and colleagues at work.  At most, they might inform a few dozen people.  That's the past. Today, the Internet has changed the equation.  In a heartbeat, an unhappy homeowner can share their experience with hundreds of people through a school or community email list.  Homeowners can post their comments on one of the many Internet gripe boards where it can be seen by thousands.  At the extreme, they can create their own website telling their side of the story, slanted or not.

Dan Rather and the mainstream media learned about the power of the blogosphere in the 2004 presidential election.  Companies that screw up and lack good service recovery procedures are at risk of learning first hand the power about the potential for the Internet to empower people to communicate.

Service Recovery
When I worked for a manufacturer, I remember when one of our branch managers received a call from a television consumer watchdog reporter.  The call concerned the reporter's own home. Our dealer had screwed up.  The branch manager knew that if he handled this wrong, it could become a public relations disaster. 

The branch manager pretended not to recognize the reporter.  He then listened to what the reporter was telling him, clarified the issues by repeating them back, empathized with the reporter's situation, apologized, and reassured him that he would personally see to it that the problem was corrected.  After completing the call, he got the dealer to fix the problem, to go beyond the pale and provide something extra, and followed through to a successful conclusion.

This is exactly the way to handle service recovery...
  1. Listen
  2. Clarify
  3. Empathize
  4. Apologize
  5. Reassure
  6. Solve
  7. Give Something Extra
  8. Follow Through

The Bully Pulpit
Did the branch manager act differently for the reporter than he would have for any other consumer?  I don't like to admit it, but he probably did.  The power of the bully pulpit tends to do that.  Today, anyone might have a bully pulpit through the Internet.

Service stakes are higher than ever.  Instead of telling everyone they know, today's unhappy homeowners can tell everyone they know, you know, and I know.  The risk might be low if you sell a low end, low cost product or service.  However, if you sell an expensive, high end product, more and more people are taking the time to conduct research over the Internet.

Don't let your pride make you so stubborn that you put your company at risk.  No one likes mistakes, but people understand they happen and will forgive mistakes *if* you fix them.  They won't understand or want to do business with a company that sues its customers.  So for goodness sake, do not sue your customers for complaining. 

Instead, make sure you've got a service recovery plan in place and treat every customer like a consumer reporter with access to the bully pulpit. 

Source: Comanche Marketing. Reprinted by permission.
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Copyright © 2004 Matt Michel

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