Sunday, November 14, 2010

Consumer Vigilantes, Business Week: 3/3/2008

This article is another reminder of the power social media, and the web in general, provides to the average consumer. Through organized blogs and web pages scorned consumers can unite to exchange information and become a powerful, collective force against organization that empower them, through poor customer service. The level of power these groups amass is directly correlated to the level of poor customer service delivered by the corresponding companies. Cable and cell phone providers are typical targets due to the lack of immediate alternatives and ease of switching. Often times for both this would involve purchasing new equipment, service cancelation fees, and potentially many calls with customer service representatives on the part of the consumer. This makes people feel locked-in and frustrated, turning to alternative options to deal with their frustration.
Its clear that this is a trend that is not going away. As more and more people become active with twitter, facebook, blogs, and other social media platforms, this practice will certainly grow and intensify. Companies would be well-advised to address this possibility within their customer service department. In the article an area within Comcast's customer service department is discussed. This unit was tasked with monitoring social media outlets for issues and providing solutions to the consumers to alleviate their concerns. Though they were probably a little late to the game on this, I think other companies could learn a valuable lesson from them in this department. Cutting these concerns off as early as possible will certainly quiet the movement down and hopefully cause the group to discontinue their page/blog/videos/etc.
Having worked in financial services, and other service industries, my entire career I have noticed there are always some customers that are never happy. I think we've all sat next to THAT GUY at a restaurant, at the store, wherever that just won't be content unless his/her entire meal is comp'd and the server tips THEM just for their patience. I fear these types of consumers may represent a certain sub-group of these "consumer vigilantes". When I hear about the customers posting executive phone numbers, personal lines in some cases, I get a little concerned. What's next, home address? If these, let's call them difficult-to-please, consumers take to these methods it will pose an interesting problem to companies. Do they buy them off with discounts, vouchers, etc (equal to the restaurant manager comp'ing the patrons meal even though there really wasn't any major issue with service) or do they stand strong and counter the attacks with their side of the story??

What do you think, where is this trend heading and how should companies respond? 



  1. Doug,

    I think you make a very important point that social media, while providing an appropriate outlet for customers who feel trapped and frustrated, can also be taken too far by abusive clients. In the case of growing vigilantes who come to abuse their power online I think companies have the right to cut them off or delete their posts. At a certain point these members of the online community have no right to post private phone numbers and addresses of company members online for the world to see. They have every right to state their case, but flagrant dissemination of inappropriate information should not be acceptable. While there is the saying that "the customer is always right", in the online communities companies have the right to draw a hardline between a customer service complaint and a full blown attack.

  2. I had the same exact thought, Doug. Yes, right now, social media is a great outlet for us to complain and get revenge for poor customer service but there are going to be those extraneous factors that take it too far. Last summer I worked in HR for a company and they have multiple Twitter feeds for customer service and they have these nightmares on their hands that start websites attacking them even though they have been compensated in one way or another. Sometimes they even showed up to the company headquarters to cause a raucous because they had nothing better to do.

  3. Doug,

    I think there is definitely the possibility that people will start to take it too far. For that reason, i think companies have to be cautious about the compensations they make for their customers because I don't think they would want to convey the message that anyone and everyone can get the same treatment. Like you said, there is always going to be someone who is unhappy no matter what businesses try to do for them, so organizations should know when to put their foot down, even though that may be hard to do in today's world when expectations are so high.

  4. I think that social media use to keep companies out in the open and dialoging with customers will reduce the number of "angry attacks" and the "the CEO of Company X drops his little girl off at the bus stop at the corner of Cherry Hill Lane and Lantern Street - GO GET HER!" type things. People HAVE to chill, and vote with their wallets. Bernie Madoff? Fine, be angry, some of you have nothing as a result of his deep betrayal of people's trust. Having trouble renting a pay-per-view movie and the CS rep isn't helpful? Really, people, the 3-day waiting period isn't intended for you, please take a nature walk and put things into perspective. I know that you ordered an extra scoop of Cookie's and Cream and the 16-year old high school student gave you Butter Rum instead, but there is no need to purchase the domain "whenIdon'tgetcookiesn'" and be THAT GUY, the Internet sensation that then can never get a job again.

  5. BC has a directory system and I think about half of the professors provide their home address and phone number. Certain business environments have already developed that level of trust in their community.

    And BC has programs in which students are invited into professors homes.

    If companies are developing deeper relationships with their customers, it might become "normal" for this kind of interaction to take place.

    I think this also aligns with more customized, personal service that people are looking for.

    I've worked at BC for almost 8 years and I have never heard of a problem of students calling professors at odd hours.

  6. I agree with your post and the comments that these never-pleased consumers are a little worrisome. Although these people have always existed, social media makes it far easier for them invade the privacy of others and get their personal information out to a lot of people quickly.

    Although the article, and the people in it, talk with pride about how effective these methods were, I personally think that these people are crazy/insane/horrible. I think its crossing the line to go after people in their homes for things related to their work lives. Call their direct work phone, not their home phone.

  7. As much as I'd hate to admit it, I think you have to "comp the meal." It's funny, but this took me back to my waitress days and it really isn't worth having a customer (who is crazy enough to make a scene already) leave the building without feeling happier. You may think that all people might just start responding the same way, but I would like to think that the crowd is better than that. It's a fine line to walk, but I think companies need to address the over exaggerated complainers and try their best not to give everything away in the process.