When It Hits the Fan – Dealing With Online Reputation Disasters

Stunning design doesn’t make the web go ‘round anymore. Ever since robust web applications made it possible for anyone with a keyboard and ten bucks a month to have a voice, content has reigned as king of the web.

There is no question that a well-designed content strategy can have a huge impact on a brand or product. In fact, content development for marketing purposes has quickly become an industry that rakes in billions of dollars every year. However, just as a few well placed blog posts can help spread the word, they can also do quite a bit of damage to a company’s online reputation.

Not only is content used to help businesses grow, but it’s also used as a way for angry customers to vent their frustrations. And the repercussions can be quite humbling for the target of their ire. The following cases are real world examples of how dissatisfied customers harnessed the power of the web and how the companies failed to respond appropriately.

The Angry Blogger

Back in 2005, a Dell customer felt that he was given the run around by the company’s customer service department after buying a faulty laptop. Instead of lying down and accepting his fate, he blogged about it.

Unfortunately for Dell, that man happened to be an influential blogger with a large following. His experience led to other bloggers sharing similar tales of woe and hundreds of commenters voiced their opinions as well.

Dell was slow to respond to the online complaints and that only added to the problem. The community felt as if their concerns were being neglected and even loyal customers began to question the product and service.

This short post became so popular that for a while if you Googled the word Dell, it was the first result. Dell learned from this experience and began a social media operations group that monitors conversations mentioning the company in real time. They learned from this experience that ignoring online complaints can really hurt the brand’s reputation.

CVS Cares, But Only For Some

CVS Pharmacy decided to jump on the social media bandwagon and create a Twitter account to interact with their customers. The problem was the account was locked. So customers had to make a request to the community manager for the privilege of following the company. That’s a big no-no when it comes to community building. Companies should never make it difficult for their customers to interact through social channels.

No one wants to have to do work to join your community. Social channels are viewed as a quicker, easier way to communicate so they should be easy and convenient for your customers to reach you through these means.

Trading Insults = Bad For Business

We have seen one Twitter escapade already, but what came out of the customer service department of Price Chopper Supermarkets is by far one of the worst example of how a brand can be damaged online. It started with a customer complaint that read:

“Every time I go to @PriceChopperNY I realize why they r not @wegmans. Tonight -bare produce areas & this sign 4 ex http://yfrog.com/2tfj9sj.”

Instead of addressing the customer’s concerns, a Price Chopper employee looked up the user’s profile and contacted their employer suggesting that they be disciplined. When an influential blogger caught wind of the story it ended up  all over the Internet.

The lesson here is easy. Train employees how to deal with negative comments and posts before you allow them to engage in social media. Just like a customer service rep who handles an irate phone call needs to bite their tongue, those who have access to customers through channels where every conversation can go viral need to watch how they respond.

Did He Really Say That?

The Arab Spring movements showed the world just how powerful social media can be. And Kenneth Cole took advantage. Posting this tweet as a joke, the designer infuriated millions:

“Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo -KC”

The tweet generated an average of 1500 negative responses every hour. What we can learn from this is that executives can do as much damage to their brand as a grouchy customer service employee. Just because they carry an impressive title doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be trained in how to properly use social media tools.

Faking It

Just about every business has a Facebook presence these days to connect with their customers. For customers, it’s a way to get their voices heard. For businesses, it’s a great way to gather input from customers and to collect marketing data.

Honda used their page to elicit feedback about their new design for the Accord and found that many had some rather negative things to say about it. All but one vocal fan who really liked the design and stated he would buy it in a heartbeat.

That raised suspicions enough to prompt other community members to research the enthusiastic fan. They discovered he was an employee of Honda who worked in product planning. You can imagine what this incident did to Honda’s reputation and credibility.

For companies that engage in social media it is important to never underestimate how savvy their community is. Cheap trickery doesn’t earn any respect online; in fact, it’s often the catalyst for further attacks.

Of course, any damage done to a brand can be repaired. It just takes time, persistence, and the knowledge of how to best manage your company’s reputation. While most organizations won’t find themselves the butt of Internet jokes and ire, there are many ways that misusing social media can hurt the way their customers view them.

About Jeff Orloff

Jeff Orloff is a freelance technology writer and consultant with Sequoia Media, Inc. (http://www.sequoiamediaservices.com). When he is not in front of a computer, he can be found coaching little league baseball.

You can find Jeff on Twitter: @jeorl.

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