Avoiding a negative viral-spiral in the age of social media

A friend of mine recently saw a movie at one of the premium cinemas of a well known chain. You know the kind, where you pay almost twice as much, access the private bar and can have a glass of wine and plate of food delivered to you during the movie.

Truth was, it was his first visit and he was grossly disappointed. The tables in the bar area were all in need of cleaning and the service was not up to par. I know this because he “told” me through his Facebook status while he was there!

The risk of negative word-of-mouth has always been greater than our ability as businesses to impact positive word-of-mouth. The old rule of thumb in marketing was that if someone was happy with your product or service they might tell one person but if they were dissatisfied with your product or service, they would tell six people. Surely this should be enough for most businesses to ensure that their products and service are up to scratch. Providing inferior products and services has always been the greatest risk to word-of-mouth.

Enter the age of social media. To say the risk has increased is a vast understatement! Complaints can be broadcast widely and instantaneously using mobile. Ponder this: the average number of Facebook friends is 200, so, when a Facebook user states their disgust at a product or service, it potentially reaches 200 of that person’s friends! Couple that with the possibility that their friends could spread the negative word to their friends, by commenting or “liking” and you could end up with quite a backlash happening in real time. I call it a negative “viral-spiral”.

Let’s not panic though. I reject the notion that this is a paradigm shift in customer service and product quality. More like a vigorous reminder of the fact that businesses need to consistently deliver over and above customer expectations. I recently read Richard Branson’s book and he devoted a whole chapter to the importance of “delivery” and he wasn’t talking about posting parcels. Product or service delivery is a total experience. Now, with social media as a very real, permanent driver of communication, businesses must focus on delivering what we promise and what is expected in order to avoid a negative viral spiral.

A strong social media strategy can also provide some level of comfort. Consider the business that experiences negative social media comments but responds with silence or worse, defensive comments. As customers we are likely to become even further disenchanted with a business that acts in this way. Thankfully, social media provides an outlet for businesses to respond appropriately and thoughtfully to criticism and complaints.

Your social media strategy should offer some guidance should your brand experience negativity (that is of course if it is a direct complaint on your blog or Facebook wall for example). This will be different for every business, but there are some commonalities that are worthy of note:

  • A suitable person/s should be charged with the responsibility of commenting on behalf of the business. It is unlikely you would ask the junior receptionist speak at a press conference, so take a similar approach to social media. In fact, take a similar approach to all complaints whether in the real world or online.
  • Offer a considered response, not a knee jerk reaction. Be understanding in your response. Even if you have a standard “company line” or a guarantee such as a free replacement product etc, make sure you take the specific circumstances into consideration and respond accordingly.
  • Thank the person for taking the time to let you know about the problem.
  • Offer an alternative service or product if it is appropriate to the person’s needs.
  • But most importantly, have practical systems in place to assess and improve quality of product and customer service. This should reduce the likelihood of poor product or service delivery in the first place and give you a sound procedure to fall back on should something go wrong.

It is hard to spin a public complaint into a positive, but it does give you an opportunity to really put your business values into practice. An ethical, fair response should be well regarded by the complainant and also any other observers.

Wishing you the best in social media comments this Christmas and may 2011 bring you an eternally upwards viral-spiral!

Further reading…