The Internet: Helpful Ombudsman or Creepy Big Brother?

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I was exchanging a few tweets with a colleague of mine the other day. I raised the topic of a new iPhone application I had come across and thought it had some innovative features. Although I was impressed overall, I questioned some practical aspects of the application.

Minutes later, the software publisher was following me on Twitter and responding to my comments, which initially made me a little angry. I felt as though someone had interrupted a conversation I was having to tell me their viewpoint. I really didn’t care how helpful the software publisher was; I cared more that my comments were being watched and preyed upon. Was I out of line to feel this way? After all, the software publisher was responding to public comments on a public forum. Microblogging and blogging by very nature are interactive and inherently invite discussions and opinions from others.

According to a recent New York Times article, in an effort to improve customer service, a certain cable company recently scoured the Web to find blog postings or other offhand online comments and subsequently responded to them. Employees from the cable company were trying to make the blogger understand their position. Even though corporations have the best intentions in mind — at least most of the time — they don’t know how to react to certain comments and complaints.

Jonathan Taylor, a public relations manager at D2 Web Design, runs the social media and marketing division for the company. The famous customer-service adage — one happy customer may only tell a few people, but an unhappy customer is bound to tell many more — rings true for him.

Taylor occasionally comes across blog postings and comments on message boards that distort his company’s position, leaving him with the dilemma of whether to respond or ignore it. Even if he decides to be proactive, he isn’t sure what measures are appropriate. Many blog sites allot space for comments; still, the comments are usually less appealing to readers than the article itself. Then again, some blogging sites make it nearly impossible to respond or contact someone regarding a particular story.

Major media outlets establish certain guidelines and methods that allow corporations to comment on stories and put forth their viewpoints. However, these same courtesies do not always exist in the blogosphere. For example, if they respond, will they be treated fairly or will their message sound like a marketing ploy and further distort the company’s image? Taylor pointed out that his company still struggles to discern when to respond and when to lie low.

According to BlogWorld, more than 12 million American adults maintain a blog. These are current, active participants sharing their opinions and views with the public. BlogWorld’s Web site also notes that more than 120,000 blogs are created on a daily basis. You can bet that if a company is treating its customers poorly, someone will blog about it. In fact, there are Web sites that serve as a forum for consumers to complain about business transactions done with companies and allows the companies to respond directly to the complaints.

Needless to say, it’s a constant fear that one bad review or comment will be dragged out into the open by thousands of blog sites. Even if the original blogger decides to correct or retract the message, the story may take on a life of its own, given that many bloggers reprint or link to stories from other sources. For example, Twitter users often re-tweet interesting messages they come across. Re-tweeting allows Twitter users to quote or republish a tweet from someone else, which means a greater number of followers and Twitter users see the re-tweet.

Alex Rudloff experienced the power of complaining on a blog firsthand. When Spirit Airlines cancelled Rudloff’s flight and refused to refund his $5 checked baggage fee, he blogged about it on his Web site. Rudloff stated his reasons for sharing his customer experience on his blog: “If Google works their magic like they usually do, at least one of the 4,931 daily searches for ‘Spirit Airlines’ will turn up this result and save someone the headache (and hopefully end up costing Spirit Airlines $6 or more).”

The result seemed to have worked. A Google search on Spirit Airlines brought up a link to Rudloff’s article, “Do Not Fly Spirit Airlines,” as one of the top search results. He reported on his blog that Spirit Airlines eventually gave him $100 credit on the airline.

The rapid spread of information is one of the reasons corporations actively monitor the blogosphere. It’s much easier to take care of customer-service complaints as soon as they occur instead of fighting misconceptions and false assumptions made on blogs. Corporations can save a tremendous amount of time and money if they take care of a problem at the very beginning instead of allowing it to escalate, at which point individuals find it necessary to blog about their bad experiences.

The act of not responding to bloggers has already gotten some well-known corporations in hot water. Jeff Jarvis in his blog, “BuzzMachine,” wrote a series of articles about Dell customer service. When Dell did not respond, the national media picked up the story, and Dell’s PR image went through nothing less than public chastising.

A Google search on the term “Dell Hell” will bring up Jarvis’ story and dozens of similar ones. No doubt it cost Dell much more in goodwill and marketing to fix its customer-service issues after the well-publicized blog reports than it would have if Dell had taken care of the issue upon learning of it.

These days, perception is reality. Before the media made it public just how difficult AOL customer representatives made it to cancel an account, most people were well aware of the problem. Even though I had never experienced it myself, my perception was that I had to be onguard when dealing with AOL. My perception may have been based on false assumptions, but it doesn’t change the fact that I, like many others, have simply avoided doing business with companies based on horror stories and perhaps even a few misconceptions.

If one unsatisfied customer spreads the word about his or her dissatisfaction more than a happy customer does about satisfaction, would it not be prudent for corporations to be even more aggressive in responding to potential customer-service issues?

Amarjit Singh, an IT auditor for a major telecommunications corporation in Dallas, doesn’t think so. “When I make a statement on a blog, it’s more about expressing how I feel about the service I already received,” he said. “I would almost feel like the corporation is curtailing free speech and exploiting the situation simply for public [relations] benefits.”

If you knew your views and opinions were being watched, would you pay attention to what you say more closely? I believe views and opinions should be thought out prior to being made publicly available on the Internet. Still, at the end of the day, let’s not forget they are just that: views and opinions. Even if corporations don’t agree with a user’s blog comments or experience, they must respect the user’s right to voice opinions.

I, personally, don’t want to look over my cyber-shoulder to see if I am being watched or solicit a response from a company because of an opinion I put out there. Sometimes a rant is just a rant. Corporations need to understand that when they offer unsolicited advice or responses, they could be viewed as borderline stalkers. I do value the input of my friends, family and colleagues on a variety of subjects — but I probably care less about the opinion of customer-service representatives who work at a company from which I received poor service.

So what are corporations supposed to do? Following the traditional steps of good customer service would work in the blogosphere as effectively it works in a storefront. There shouldn’t be too many differences when dealing with an unhappy customer face-to-face vs. online. What is an appropriate response when encountering an unhappy customer? The most obvious answer is that corporations can listen and learn what made the experience terrible for the person reporting it. When corporations do respond to a complaint, they need to make sure that they can actually help the person.

“Sympathizing with someone will only get you so far,” Taylor said. If all you do is sympathize, it starts to look like you’re trying to buy time or are unsure how to respond. Because the entire world can see what you’re doing on the Internet, one must ensure the response is accurate.

“Above all else, when we respond to complaints in a public forum, as a company, we want to make sure we act professionally, courteously and reasonably at all times,” Taylor said.

Singh said he’s unsure whether companies should respond to complaints via public forums. “It really depends [on whether or not] they are able to solve the problem.”

If a company were simply defending itself and not solving the problem at hand, I would begin to feel annoyed and question whether or not to do business with it again. On the other hand, if a corporation genuinely tried to resolve the issue, I would appreciate the gesture and effort it put forth.

There are times when a company will lose a customer and cannot win him or her back. In such a situation, the company must learn why it lost the customer and whether it could have taken steps to avoid it. It’s also important to understand and accept the fact that a company cannot make everyone happy — and that’s OK. As long as a corporation is successful and the majority of customers are satisfied, that’s what counts in the end. There always will be that small percentage of people who just don’t agree with a company’s image, philosophy or leadership.

Today, both corporations and users try to discern what constitutes a helpful follow-up vs. an aggressive invasion. Only time will tell. The way we use the social networking tool will determine what’s regarded as acceptable in the future. 

Aamir Lakhani is a security solutions architect for World Wide Technology. He specializes in information security, networking and cyber-counter intelligence and has more than 10 years of IT security experience. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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