TODAY: When a company met angry blogger

TODAY: When a company met angry blogger

In the age of the Internet grapevine, know your stuff before tackling customer complaints on the Web

IT HAS been said, and quite often by bloggers, that businesses ignore blogs and online discussion forums at their peril. (Try a Google search with the term “businesses ignore blogs at their peril”, and you will see what I mean).

News sites abound with tales of companies which either ignore, or do not wake up to, the extent of customer dissatisfaction until it is too late. But what happens in the rare case at least in the local experience that a company actually responds to rumbles of consumer discontent online?

Judging by the reaction when one company did so last week, is it a case of “damned if you don’t, damned if you do”?

One apparently disgruntled customer of a company that provides protective wrapping for mobile phones, PDAs and other similar devices posted his complaint on a discussion forum. Now, what typically happens in an instance like this, is that other forum members might commiserate or disagree with a customer’s complaint, or share their own experiences. But what happened this time was that a representative of the company decided to respond to the allegations by emailing the original poster, with interesting results.

You see, that poster ” ”Siaw8”, or Shaowei ” decided to copy-and-paste the email on the forum for all to see.
Before long, the discussion had leapt from the Singapore Palm Users Group forum (www.spug.net) to PPC (www.ppcsg.com) and to Hardware Zone”s forums (www.forums.hardwarezone.com). Apparently, the company”s representative began by saying, ”I have read your feedback and the Hardware zone forum. First of all, I wish to apologise if you have faced a very bad experience ””.

He went on to rebut the complainant’s points, asserting for instance that ”once you leave the outlet, we will not be responsible for any defects as the origin of the defects” and emphasising the disclaimer of liability ”stated clearly and very big on the receipt which you have signed”.

The rep concluded: ”I thank you for writing in the forum or even the nation (sic) to help create awareness for my company services. The public should be informed clear (sic) that they need to assume the risk of their phone during the wrapping process.”

Judging from the ensuing deluge of reactions, forum posters and bloggers felt that the company rep”s response was less than satisfactory.

SPUG forum member ”MrBinks76” left a typical response: ”Accidents happen in all businesses, but the worst thing is to insult the customer and deny responsibility.”

The company rep wrote another email to ”Siaw8” (who promptly posted that online too), noting: ”We have wrapped more than 5,000 gadgets and most of our customers (98%) are pleased with our service. ”I understand your frustration, but we also need to survive our business in the long run. If I were to compensate your case, I can close business already as our company got so many other cost …” To which, forum poster ”ssdillon” retorted: ”If really 98% of the customers are satisfied, then what”s the problem compensating the other 2%? It”s a really small figure ” Easier then going thru all this stupid hassle of answering complaints and also bad publicity.” More was said on the forums, including a detailed discussion of the legal effectiveness of disclaimers.

The long and short of it was, the company posted a message on Hardware zone saying it was ”very apologetic”” about the incident. ”If you guys feel that we should compensate or even do a public apology, feel free to post and we will do the necessary steps. I just want everybody to know that we are doing a fair and just business,” it said.

Did it end there? No. One ”Eric Gazza”, purporting to be a friend of the first company rep, griped about Siaw8”s methods, saying in a forum: ”Stop whining and go talk to the relevant party to settle the issue … can you imagine your e-mails to others being edited and posted up in the forums?” But ”Tomato75” had a different view, calling it a ”PR disaster” for the company.

”Whatever it is, a customer will always be a customer. And it is always best to clarify whatever misunderstanding there is face to face (or at least a call) and not thru emails or in such public forums. Words can easily be misrepresented or miscommunicated.”

At one point in the whole exchange, ”Siaw8” claimed: ”Actually, if they had called up and apologised, I would have let bygones be bygones.”

If anything, the episode provides a useful lesson for companies in negotiating the minefield of customer service, especially in the age of the Internet grapevine.

Companies really cannot afford to ignore the online community. But if you want to tackle your customers online, you really
have to know what you”re doing.

Mr Miyagi a.k.a. Benjamin Lee, has been entertaining blog readers for a year at myveryownglob.blogspot.com, and regrets not reading online forums before buying his car.

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