Please Do Not Slapp your Customers (Around)

The New York Times published an article May 31, the story about a towing company which hauled a car from an apartment complex parking lot. According to the car owner, he did have a permit to park there, the owner then went to the Internet for revenge. The Owner created a Facebook fan page “For Revenge”, where people joined and posted their own ‘stories’.  The towing company filed a lawsuit and their lawyer said that it was justified in removing the car because the permit was not visible, and that the Facebook page was costing it business and had unfairly damaged its reputation. There, that is the quick back story.

This type of lawsuit is referred to as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or Slapp. The label has traditionally referred to meritless defamation suits filed by businesses or government officials against citizens who speak out against them. The plaintiffs are not necessarily expecting to succeed — most do not — but rather to intimidate critics who are inclined to back down when faced with the prospect of a long, expensive court battle.

Looking at this from a Relationship perspective, or Voice of the Customer perspective, I wanted to get some outside opinions to help me form my own…

From A. Prem Kumar, Evangelist – Social CRM, Cognizant

“People in general & businesses in particular need to act more responsibly, not just flex their power – be it the democratic power of the social media or the ability to throw money & time at lengthy legal rigmaroles. Trust is not built on social media alone, nor should it be the primary place where its built – trust is built when both the parties behave responsibly & provide value to each other, whichever way the other party perceives value.”

Who owns the Customer here?

Another interesting part about this story is that a towing company is a 3rd party to the an important part of this story/event. I think the Times missed an important element of the story – In theory, they, the towing company, are just following the orders given to them by the owners of the parking lot. The car owner chose to go after the towing company. It seems that the towing company missed that point as well.  My advice would have been to the towing company, and they could have simply stated that they are bound by the agreement with their customer and feel that they played by the rules. They could apologize to the customer, and remained understated. I also believe the towing company should have taken a simpler approach.

I asked another friend, Scott Rogers, Director of Strategic Planning, David’s Bridal, what he thought:

“It’s critical to understand that not only are comments posted online in social media/networking sites public, but the responses are too.  While the words of the poet John Lydgate are true – “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”, (although it’s paramount to try, at least) and there will always be some who vent online, it’s the company/organization/individual’s response to that vent that is even more important.  And while the initial response by the company/organization/individual may be offline (or in court), the responder should anticipate that the response will be public, and act accordingly.”

Who is accountable for the success of the relationship?

YOU ARE!

But, more to the point and back to the 3rd party part of the story. How are you aligned with your partners? Say, you are a SaaS provider and your solution provider, the Cloud or PaaS provider (the one providing your hardware, network and power has an issue. How would you approach this scenario? I would hope that you would put the customer first and then schedule a conversation with the solution provider later. Yes, even if the the customer makes a Facebook fanpage poking fun at you and trying the ‘social pressure’ route, you need to be cautious. You need to be clear on the intent, what outcome does the customer want?

In the end, Social Media is a great place to vent, but both sides need to consider the outcome they are trying to achieve. I would be cautious on making too many assumptions, but you must consider how much time someone is spending trying to vent. I will leave you with a final quote from Scott, where I think he really nails it!

“As a retailer and a practicioner in Social CRM and Voice of the Customer activities, I would ask you to think first Who is more important – you or your customer?

Well said sir, and thanks!

2 thoughts on “Please Do Not Slapp your Customers (Around)

  1. This article speaks to many truths.

    Not only does it cover the issue of accountability but it brings forth a new perspective on social media, one that sheds light on how these new communication vehicles aren’t always so friendly.

    In regards to the towing company, they took accountability for something they did not have control over. They were hired by the parking lot, making it the parking lot’s fault for having the customer’s car towed. Apart from that lack of judgment, they failed to maintain a professional approach and chose to take the customer’s social actions too seriously and personally. Had they apologized for their actions and referred the customer to the correct person at fault, a Facebook defamation group probably wouldn’t have been started in the first place.

    Though social media tools, like Facebook and Twitter, provide the business world with a first-hand approach to understanding their customers, these powerful communication vehicles have the stamina to ignite virtual protests and demonstrations. It is therefore imperative that companies monitor what is said about their company and industry in the virtual world to not only ensure that they maintain their reputation but also to stop a potentially threatening outburst before it gets started because afterall, customers aren’t the only users of social media.

  2. Thanks for stopping by!
    Your point regarding what the towing company did, in accepting, taking even, accountability for something they did not do, may cause issues into the future. For now, if they ‘go after’ individuals, they may be able to scare them and prevent something like this from happening again. The effort does not cause them too much money.
    However, what will happen is that users, the people with an issue, will try to become anonymous, which will have nearly the same impact, but now the ‘towing company’ will have to go to much greater lengths to figure out who it is causing them the issue. Much better to speak with the folks, be direct and try to work something out.

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