The new complaining and your brand’s reputation

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  • September 24, 2009

You may well have noticed this story over the past couple of weeks. It is about one web developer’s battle with Thomson Holidays for compensation following a disastrous holiday in Tunisia with the tour operator.

Thomson eventually capitulated after his blog gained higher search rankings for the keyword ‘Thomson Tunisia’ than their own site. This type of online consumer activism was recently mirrored in the US by Dave Carroll, who had his prized guitar damaged by United Airlines. The Canadian musician decided to post a series of YouTube protest songs until the airline properly compensated. They did, but not before his high profile stunt caused the airline’s value to plummet by ten per cent.

These two high profile episodes bring about an important question – how can brands protect themselves from the growing trend of online foot stamping?

Just tweet it

While stories such as Andy Sharman’s might have only ended up in the consumer pages of a local paper, or at worst ended up in court, social media broadcasts them in stereo.

A little later to the party were mainstream media outlets, who picked up on the story after Thomson had agreed to refund his money – crucially responding after 28 days had elapsed, their self imposed deadline for responding to customer complaints. While national newspapers (particularly in the UK) are desperate to seem relevant and pounce on any internet ‘phenomena’ at the moment, the story was powerful in that it illustrated the power one humble 23-year-old blogger can have over a multi-million pound company. Thomson ultimately came off second best from this encounter; not only breaking their own customer service policy but also failing to address the problem until it hurt their SEO.

Twitter is awash with disgruntled consumers and shows that while most people won’t go to the effort of creating a blog or writing a song, tweets can be just as damaging and have the ability to spread rapidly. Respected companies AT&T, and Amazon have been caught up in ‘twitterstorms’ – where negative complaints about their service or products spread like wildfire.

Increasingly social media users see Twitter, Facebook and blogs as a perfect environment in which to complain about poor customer service. Twitter in particular is putting all those difficult customer service conversations and word of mouth product reviews out in the open.  Gone are the days when you could simply deal with these issues in private or brush negative comments aside as the opinion of a ‘minority.’

Social media offers unparallelled opportunities to self-publish and spread ideas. This is a new age for consumers and regardless of the rights or wrongs of kicking up a fuss Web 2.0 style, businesses have to react or face being dragged through the digital dirt.

So if someone with persistence can quite literally destroy your painstakingly honed reputation in a matter of days what can you do about it?

Building relationships
When a customer sends you a grumbling email or calls to say they are unhappy you react immediately. Aware of the potential damage they can cause through word of mouth you do everything within reason to make them happy. You should be doing exactly the same thing when someone makes similar noises online. The fragmented nature of the internet does make it harder to monitor all conversations, but not impossible.

Knowledge is power – If you don’t know what people are saying about your company then you our powerless to respond. Social media monitoring can take many forms, from the humble Google alert, to desktop monitoring apps like Seesmic, real time social media search like Collecta and detailed paid for services like Radian 6 which will offer provide detailed insight. Whatever you chose pick keywords which cover your company, brands, products and services. Also never disregard people – criticism of one of your senior executives can reflect badly on the business as a whole.

Gain an identity – Now you have discovered who (if anyone) is talking about you online it is time to get involved. Create a profile on Twitter and Facebook and decide who is going to monitor and respond to messages. Much like a real press office, ensuring you have someone with responsibility for social media will ensure nothing slips through the net.

Shape a personality – This is the point at which you have to decide whether you are proactive or reactive when it comes to managing the reputation of your brand. Do you simply want to counteract negative comments and deal with customer grievances? Or use social media as a platform from which to talk about your business or brand – whether it be leading industry discussion, posting news and blog links or offering discounts and incentives.
Engage – Whichever path you chose is a step in the right direction. Customers want to interact with brands and ultimately don’t want to be frustrated by faulty products and services (no one enjoys complaining that much). If there is a problem discover what it is, who is talking about it and address them authentically – while you may not be able to tell the whole truth or know the answer immediately don’t sound like a robot.

Twitter has made a few big companies sit up and take notice because of its ability to spread negative comments and sentiments rapidly. Unfortunately most are effectively shooting in the dark, with few measuring results and outcomes. If you start from a basis of monitoring and measurement you are most definitely on the right track and can build a successful strategy. Ultimately, deciding what direction to go in may not be entirely in your hands, but in the hands of your customers.

Joel Turner

About Joel Turner

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  • Stephen_Webb

    The internet has clearly had a big effect on the consumer and their power. As stated in this article, stories such as these were previously confined to the columns of local newspapers; rarely getting any widespread attention. However with the invention of the internet the consumer now has real power, and the ability to make something happen.

    I’ve not previously heard of a case like this, where certain search terms were ranking higher than the official website of the company involved. Maybe this will set an example that poor customer service cannot be hidden in the modern world, and those company’s who had previously done little to resolve grievances will now have to put effort in to resolve situations immediately.

    Despite the fact that Thomson eventually did refund Mr Sharman’s holiday and deal with his situation, their reputation has still been damaged. The main point of this story being that it took an internet blog’s widespread success to get a reaction from Thomson obviously doesn’t reflect well on them, so let’s hope that other business’s take note of this incident and start taking online consumer activism seriously.

  • Lauren Vargas


    Customers have a new megaphone…social media. Companies/Brands cannot afford to ignore the conversations that are happening in the social media space and outside of “official” channels. Thank you for including us in your post as a monitoring tool.

    Lauren Vargas
    Community Manager at Radian6

  • tag44

    Very well informative post written on online brand reputation.

  • mark

    Major companies still under estimate the power of the social media, the fact is that user comments have the power to make or break a brand. Businesses are coming around to this thinking slowly, unfortunately too slow for some business. Great post, thanks.

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