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« Paul Heller and Avis: A Case Study In Viral Customer Service Groundswells | Main | Invest 10% of your advertising money in serving and cultivating customers »

March 10, 2011

You've been wronged. Now what? Social media strategies for consumers.

by Josh Bernoff

As you read in my other post, Paul Heller was displeased with having to pay Avis $13.99 to put fuel into the tank of his rental car, when he had already filled it up. In this post I actually address the question: what should consumers who are the victim of bad service do? This post is a first: my advice for consumers.

First decide what you want

The first thing any consumer must do is to decide his or her objective.

  • If your objective is to receive compensation, then it’s better to threaten public action first, rather than actually taking it.
  • If your objective is to embarass and get back at the company, then by all means, let fly.
  • If your objective is to create actual change – to make a company do something – then you want to post things that will cause change, but avoid mean-spirited attacks.

Tell the truth, don’t get angry, amuse, and intrigue

Getting your story to spread will help any of the above objectives.

The first thing you need to do is go through channels, customer service channels, and escalate. This is work.

Take careful notes as you do this, and as Paul did, take pictures. Think about what your fellow consumers would think of your experiences – ask questions intended to generate material for the future.

Anger is typically not productive in these situations. Angry customers are so commonplace that we typically don’t want to hear about them. And yelling at employees and customer service people doesn’t typically generate good outcomes. Save the anger for after you’ve had the experience. Remember, revenge is a dish best served cold.

If you want the story to spread, you’ll need the elements mentioned in the previous post: getting people to identify with you, outrageous company behavior, companies behaving badly in a way we all suspect they do, and a hook. If your story does not include all of these elements, ask yourself – can I improve it so it does? It may be hopeless – or you may be able to have a little fun making things more interesting.
In Paul’s case, he needs that humor. The outrageous idea in his story is that Avis charges $7.98 a gallon for gas. But the funny or quirky idea is missing.

Here’s what I recommended  to him. Make a video about trying to fill things that are already full. Like adding a few drops to a full glass of water. Cramming a few more things into a full suitcase. Piling people into a phone booth. Feeding a grape to an immensely fat person who says “I couldn’t possibly.” The tagline has to be something around “If it’s full, don’t fill it. That goes for you too, Avis!” I don’t have the wit to do this, but maybe Paul does – and properly done (and with the right music), it could be funny. Maybe you have a better idea?

Launching your campaign

The next step is to do as Paul did, and try to get people interested. If you know reporters, great – contact them. Send a link to your best connected friends. Paul contacted me and a bunch of other social media analyst-types that he has some contact with.

You have to be careful here. Paul sent Twitter messages to a bunch of people, all in a row, all the same except for our names. This is a tactic used by spammers, and it’s obvious – all we have to do is look at your Twitter feed to see you’re doing it. Better is to email people, or customize the Twitter messages so they are a little more personal, or tag comments onto relevant blog posts about customer service that people have written.

If you have a million followers like Dooce, of course, you’re set. (I admit, I’ve done this a few times myself – I’m no Dooce, but companies really don’t want me talking about their service issues.) But in many cases, the consumers who launched these counterattacks on the people who wronged them weren’t well connected. Dave Carroll wasn’t popular, he was just really creative and talented.

These bits of advice aren’t just about how consumers can “do the right thing.” It’s not just morality – it’s that we’re far more likely to sympathize with, talk about , and spread messages from people we like and trust.  Especially when they’re witty, funny, or interesting. You need to be likeable to get social media to help you as a consumer. Bemused works better than outraged.


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I like how you presented all of the steps a customer should take to file a complaint in an actionable and goal oriented way. If only customers could keep this in mind when they send annoying complaint calls to retailers.

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