Social media changing customer service, disaster relief

Twitter empowers angry consumers, customer-aware companies

Published: Friday, March 23 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

Social media is changing the game for consumers. The dance between company and customer could change with a click.

Dell Inc.

Heather Armstrong had not planned to have a fight with an appliance company. But her brand-new, not inexpensive Maytag washing machine had broken down, and the timing could not have been worse.

With a newborn baby in the house, Salt Lake-based blogger Armstrong needed to be doing laundry often. Constantly.

Maytag's response was beyond unsatisfactory.

"I had basically exhausted every single avenue for customer service available," Armstrong said. She had made the calls, been polite, waited patiently for the repairs that never came.

It was time for the last resort. Armstrong took to her Twitter account. She calmed herself in advance — "I purposefully took a walk around the block before I sat down to write anything. I was careful not to use any expletives," she said — but when it came time to tweet, she was forceful.

"So that you may not have to suffer like we have: DO NOT EVER BUY A MAYTAG. I repeat: OUR MAYTAG EXPERIENCE HAS BEEN A NIGHTMARE."

Armstrong, one of the most-read bloggers in America, followed this up with four other tweets warning her 1.5 million followers — in no uncertain terms — about her washing machine nightmare.

After "about 8 or 9 hours," Armstrong said, she was contacted via Twitter by Maytag's owner, the Whirlpool Corporation. The following day she got a call, a repairman and a fixed machine. Not only that, she was also promptly offered a free machine courtesy of Bosch, also a home appliance company. Armstrong donated it to a local women's shelter.

"I still have (the washing machine)," Armstrong said. "They fixed it, and it's working … I think they're happy that I went away."

Heather Armstrong's swift reversal in the world of customer service was due in large part to her own power: with a million followers on Twitter and Dooce, her famous blog, anything she said could — and did — reverberate in the virtual world.

But her experience speaks to a larger truth about social media and the free market. The Maytag story, she said, is now being used in textbooks to illustrate the critical importance of managing the online image of businesses.

Social media is changing the game for consumers. The dance between company and customer could change with a click. And with that click, the frustration of one unsatisfied patron could change an organization's reputation for many, many others. More than ever, businesses have reason to be wary of how they treat their customers.

"It's a public way to keep brands honest," Cory Edwards said. "The court of public opinion in many ways is realized through the social web."

Edwards teaches at Brigham Young University as an adjunct professor in the College of Fine Arts and Communications. He is also the director of social media and corporate reputation for Dell computers. He said Dell has been heavily involved with monitoring and responding to online conversations about its brand since 2006.

Learning curve

But the reality is, the world of social media is a new one for many companies. Harvard Business Review Analytic Services conducted a survey of 2,100 companies in late 2010. Only 12 percent of them felt they were using social media effectively.

Using social media effectively is, however, second nature to most of the people companies hope to attract. "It's become integrated into the daily life of almost everyone," Edwards said.

"If people aren't getting the response they want," said Dave Folkens, a public relations consultant in Minneapolis, Minn., "we're a lot quicker to go and share that with our friends and networks now."

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