Applebee’s: if you’re in a social media hole, put down your shovel

Will Rogers once said, “when you’re in a hole stop digging.” He certainly did not have social media in mind, which is a pity when you think about it: he would have killed on Twitter, and he could have checked Yelp! for customer reviews of Wiley Post’s flying abilities.

However, it is a saying that fits social media to a tee. It’s a medium that the customer controls (or at least has equal control, shared with the buyer), but that reality escapes businesses – so they try to assert their control again, and again, and again. Not only do they fail to regain control – which they will never do – they end up provoking those in the conversation, and those attracted to the conversation by their provocations. These usually start out with a misstep or perceived misstep by the company; instead of trying to remedy the problem, there’s rationalization, arguments and, at times, bad behavior. In other words: dig, dig, dig!

Last week saw the latest example of this: Applebee’s Restaurants. Here’s the set-up summarized from R. L. Stollar’s stellar blog post on the company’s godawful social media response:

A waitress at a St. Louis Applebee’s lost her job for posting online the receipt upon which a pastor had declined to leave a tip, with a snarky note saying she gave God 10 percent.

After her dinner on Jan. 25, Pastor Alois Bell crossed out the automatic 18 percent tip charged for parties of more than eight. “I give God 10% why do you get 18,” she wrote above her signature.

Employee Chelsea Welch — a colleague of the stiffed server — took a picture of the receipt and uploaded it to the online site Reddit. She subsequently lost her job, an Applebee’s spokesman confirmed to TheSmokingGun.com, for violating a customer’s privacy.

Even though what the minister did was boorish, what Chelsea did was not 100 percent cool, either. Calling your customers out by name in social media is not smart behavior. But this is the kind of thing that should result in a talking-to from a manager, not a canning.

When the story reached social media, there was a lot of negative commentary; many of us worked as food servers during the early part of our professional lives, and we can relate to the difficult job they do even when their customers aren’t pulling douchenozzle games with their tips.

So how did Applebee’s respond – with a statement of policy, an expression of regret at the need to let go of an otherwise good employee, and an acknowledgement of how hard servers work – and then silence? Oh, no. That would be too easy.

Part of it stems from Applebee’s use of a widget on its home page that displays tweets about the company – which became populated with people complaining about the company.

Applebee’s social media managers then tried to quell the complaints with a Facebook posting that asserted that the firing had to happen because the posting of the note exposed private details of the customer. True enough – but then people began re-posting items from Applebee’s own site, like notes from customers left on receipts – that violated the rules the company use to fire the waitress in question.  Applebee’s responded by removing that image from its site.

Dig!

Then, the company posted a longer explanation and justification for its actions as a Facebook status update, at 2:53 a.m. eastern time on Saturday. But, with 1000 posts an hour being left by irate visitors, that update sank out of sight within moments.

With all those posts coming, apparently Applebee’s thought it needed to make some space – so it allegedly began deleting negative posts and blocking people from its Facebook page.

Dig!

Then, Applebee’s started responding to posts with a cut-and-paste boilerplate answer, modified slightly to match the posts it was responding to. This is readily apparent, since they land on the page consecutively at times.

Dig!

Then, the social media manager started tagging people and, at times, arguing with them.

Dig!

Then it posted a new status update with another boilerplate non-apology – and hid the original post and its nearly 20,000 responses. People were not happy and let them have it for “deleting” their posts.

Dig!

And it continues to go on, with more individual responses, more cut-and-paste posts and more blockages of users. Dig, dig, dig!

At this point, the case of the waitress and the self-righteous minister is long gone. The story is now about Applebee’s horrendous response and its ongoing efforts to keep itself in the news. Here’s a tip: if people think your business has done something wrong, take a step to remedy it. Don’t do things that will ensure that people keep talking about how your business has done something wrong, and don’t make your inept response into a new, possibly longer-lived story.

Had Applebee’s apologized for the situation, sought a solution that was amenable to both employee and customer, and then made a statement of support for its servers, the situation would have evaporated. Instead, it’s prolonged and intensified its own miseries.

Is there any business scenario in which cutting off customer discussions, arguing with customers or stringing out discussion of a topic that paints you in a bad light are good things? If you worked anywhere besides social media – like in sales, or PR, or even as a customer-facing employee – such missteps might land you in the same unemployment line as Chelsea Welch. Instead, because businesses have not caught own to the fact that they don’t own the conversation, this behavior is still tolerated – and perhaps encouraged by executives.

For goodness sake: if you find yourself in a social media hole, do something to remedy what put you in there in the first place, and lay the shovel down.

5 thoughts on “Applebee’s: if you’re in a social media hole, put down your shovel

  1. Chris – Great Post!

    It certainly seems like common sense to just apologize and make it right, and I’m always amazed when it actually turns out to be uncommon sense.

    There’s rarely a place for a shovel in any circumstances like this. Instead of digging, organizations like Applebees should use these situations as an opportunity to shine. When you just do what you’re supposed to do, even if it’s great, people rarely take notice or give kudos. However, when you screw up and handle it with elegance, class, and professionalism, you can get more praise and positive reinforcement than if the screw up never happened in the first place.

    Bury the shovel!

    David

    • That’s a really tough call – there’s always a resistance to doing things that look like the admission of a mistake. But sometimes admitting a mistake is the right thing to do. Maybe Applebee’s should re-hire the waitress, put out a statement saying that they, like a lot of businesses, are trying to catch up with social media trends and that they’re putting renewed emphasis on everyone knowing the policy, and consider it a lesson learned. That would be the smart thing to do…

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