Social media changing customer service, disaster relief

Twitter empowers angry consumers, customer-aware companies

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

That willingness to share has unleashed a startling power in "the court of public opinion," as Edwards called it. Issues on the national stage have seen whiplash reversals after social media users had their say: The anti-piracy legislation SOPA was shelved by Congress after the virtual world made its displeasure felt. The Susan G. Komen Foundation's decision to stop providing funding to Planned Parenthood was quickly reversed after a similar social media barrage.

Companies are starting to take the hint. Tweets, succinct though they may be, can be heard around the world. To 'like' something on Facebook takes one click, but it can speak volumes. And typing out displeasure with a product or service has never been more vocal, or more public.

"I think that there's a recognition that … social media is not going to just go away," Edwards said. "Early on, there were a lot of people that scoffed at the idea of a blog … then Facebook came around, and now your grandmother's on it along with everyone else. Companies should ignore (social networks) at their peril."

It's a lesson Dell, like Maytag, learned the hard way about seven years ago. In 2005, Jeff Jarvis, a journalist and blogger for the Guardian (a large newspaper in the United Kingdom), chronicled his experience with the customer support arm of the company. He called it "Dell Hell."

Jarvis, like Armstrong, had enough of a following that his complaints did not go unnoticed. He was eventually offered a brand new device, and instead asked for a full refund (which he got).

In an entirely different part of the world — at a conference in Osaka, Japan — Dell was in for another PR disaster: one of their laptops spontaneously combusted. Computers on fire! The incident mushroomed in the media, and reports of similar events began to crop up everywhere. Exploding laptops and angry blogging customers made for an unhappy combination.

"It was a scary time for the company," Edwards said. "That forced us to do what we're doing."

The power of online reputation

What they're doing translates to putting social media at the center of their business strategy. "(Dell) is an incredible example of really utilizing social media to its best advantage," said John Thuet, one of Edwards' BYU students who is studying communications and public relations.

The company now has a "command center" admired and replicated by businesses the world over. The center, which emerged about the same time Harvard's study did, is solely in place to monitor daily virtual conversations about Dell. According to Edwards, there are 25,000 mentions of the company every day. The sheer volume of data requires a sophisticated model to process it, group it into trends and understand the daily fluctuations of the company's online reputation.

Edwards called it an "early warning system" to try and avoid any more "Dell Hell" fiascos. "At any point, something viral could happen that could affect us negatively," he said.

The viral aspect of social media — the fact that something said by even the most anonymous of users could catch on and spread like wildfire — is giving consumers a louder kind of power.

"Now consumers don't just consume," Jarvis wrote after chronicling Dell Hell. "We spit back."

Armstrong mentioned that while the magnitude of her own experience surprised her, her friends with far less prominent online presences — say, 50 followers to her 1.5 million — are now getting attention from companies when they need it.

Folkens is careful to point out that to "quickly go online and post a rant," or some similar "kneejerk reaction" is not necessarily the best way to attract a business. "If you go out and flame a company without cause," he said, "obviously companies don't want to deal with that either."

But "I think companies will be a little bit more accountable," he said, "because of the public nature of it — because again, you don't want misperceptions or single bad experiences casting such a shadow of doubt, because if they get some traction online they could be overblown. (Organizations) are probably more sensitive now to the customer-service impact than they were three to five years ago, because of social media."

Satisfying the tweeting customer

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