Dissatisfied Customers + Word of Mouth = Marketing Gone Bad

The worst possible thing you can do is to slight someone else at the expense of convenience. The result is bad publicity, regardless of the benefits you believe it yields for the short term. If you screw up, it’s a public relations nightmare. Can we say damage control?

Here are three cases that were blown way out of proportion but could have been handled a lot better if the companies thought of the consequences before acting. There’s a bottom line: it’s a lot harder to sweep your mistakes under the rug, especially as a company in a world of conversing markets.

Case #1: Sprint Terminates Customers’ Accounts for Complaints

It’s been all over the Internet already. One of the more recent fiascoes occurred when Sprint forcibly disconnected service for 1,200 customers. From News4Jax.com, Sprint released a rather disturbing statement, saying:

Rather than continue to operate in a situation that was unsatisfactory for Sprint and our subscribers, we chose to terminate our relationship with those customers to allow them to pursue other options.

Oops. I visited a Sprint store on Sunday and a representative confirmed that this was the case, saying “at least we gave them until July 31 to find another carrier.” But boy, that’s really convenient. Here’s what Sprint is thinking: you’re wasting our valuable customer service dollars and our errors are costing us too much money, so we’ll drop you and we’ll save big. At least, that’s what you’d think before an insider gave the scoop to Consumerist: apparently, customers were actually scamming Sprint for free service and defrauding the company. Note that this was told to Consumerist anonymously but on the record. Does that really give the insider’s claim any credibility?

With 1,200 users terminated at once, I’m not sure people can easily buy that. That’s why it was told to Consumerist (for some damage control, I suppose) and Sprint’s justification didn’t make national media outlets. After all, not all of the 1,200 customers had scammed the company (and if that tip to Consumerist wasn’t anonymous, I think Sprint would have had some legal issues to deal with).

Truthfully, regardless of whether that’s fact or fiction, dropping 1,200 customers in one shot is a spill you’re going to have to clean up. I think Sprint will be suffering from this one for a long time.

Case #2: Continental Airlines Kicks Toddler Off Plane for Talking Too Much

Continental AirlinesNow this just disappoints me. An eighteen-month-old boy and his mother were thrown off a Continental Airlines flight because a flight attendant couldn’t stand the little boy saying “bye plane” throughout her safety instruction speech. She called authorities and complained of a “passenger disturbance.” The plane was then brought back to the gate. Both mother and son were escorted off the plane — and that’s after they already endured an 11 hour delay to catch that flight.

Was that really an appropriate move? Not only did it make the young mother feel helpless, it also inconvenienced an entire plane full of passengers.

Continental Airlines said it will be investigating the matter.

Case #3: The National Pork Board Orders Jennifer Laycock to Take Off Her Shirt

In February of this year, nursing mother Jennifer Laycock, who sells T-shirts as part of her blog, was threatened with a lawsuit by the National Pork Board because she sold a shirt that said “The other white milk” which they believed was a parody of their trademarked slogan, “The other white meat.” They further hoped to strengthen their case by claiming that Jennifer Laycock was “apparent[ly] attempt[ing] to promote the use of breastmilk beyond merely for infant consumption.”

Jennifer blogged about her ordeal and it caused a social media outrage. It hit the Digg front page and then was blogged by hundreds of people. The contact information of the National Pork Board was posted, and the outcry was tremendous. Less than a week later, the National Pork Board apologized.

Moral of the Stories

What is more important, perception or convenience? Do you really want negative press to jack your once positive image? What can you do when these stories get ranked pretty high in the search results for your company? Do you want to focus on reputation management issues to no end because of something that could have been dealt with in better ways? Sometimes, it really helps to go above and beyond the call of duty to make the customer experience a pleasant and enjoyable one. I can’t say how often I’ve looked to Seth Godin for his insights into small changes that can drastically improve your customers’ perceptions of you. He talks about an honor system where it is our obligation to give people the benefit of the doubt. Word of mouth is incredibly powerful. At times, it can almost make or break a business.

In Sprint’s case, it’s about transparency and customer satisfaction. In Continental’s case, it’s about not losing your cool with less than ideal customers (including those that are too young to understand!). In the National Pork Board’s case, it’s about comfortable mediation without the need to use legal force. Don’t jump to conclusions. When you deal with people on a regular basis, you need to be a team player.

Today, we’re in a world — a network — where you can make one slip and you could really tumble down. It is more important than ever to go above and beyond what you’d typically expect of yourself because people really do appreciate it and that publicity can be great for you. Granted, positive feats are not as newsworthy as negative ones, but having great customer service really goes a long way. If that means spending a longer time with a client to make them feel valued as a customer, you should not hesitate.

It’s about time you consider your image for the long term, because what your customers think of you can mean everything for your success, and happier customers creates a happier environment for you to work in. At the end of the day, everyone becomes a winner.

Tamar Weinberg is a hustler and juggler. She is the VP of Marketing at Ruxly Creative, a creative marketing agency. She's the Director of Sales at Internet Marketing Ninjas, a 100+ employee search engine marketing agency located in upstate New York. She also rocks global sales at financial media publication Wall St. Cheat Sheet. Finally, she is the Chief Strategy Officer of Small Business Trends. Oh wait, and she's also the community manager at Namecheap. Yeah, like a boss.

4 Comments

  • September 4, 2007

    D Huerta

    I noticed you used the image of a Continental Airlines 757. The incident actually occurred on an ExpressJet, Embraer Regional Jet, and though ExpressJet is a regional connections airline for Continental, its employees are in fact not Continental employees, even though they wear similar uniforms in some markets (in others the uniforms are Delta’s and other carriers they provide connections to) and are currently using the Continental paint scheme for their aircraft (part of a contract deal when ExpressJet bought Continental’s regional carrier Continental Express. This should be pointed out since the distinction between the minor regional carrier (ExpressJet) and the major international carrier (Continental Airlines,Inc), is that Continental is known for it’s exceptional service and award winning flight crews. You do a disservice to Continental, your entry creates the misconception that this occurred on one of the major carriers flights, when if fact, it did not. In an article about perception, it just seems out of place.

  • December 19, 2007

    Boone Chu

    D Huerta Says: “though ExpressJet is a regional connections airline for Continental, its employees are in fact not Continental employees, even though they wear similar uniforms in some markets” “and are currently using the Continental paint scheme for their aircraft

    Gee, in a world where it’s all about ‘perception’ if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck then, I guess, we should hire a spook to dig through the corporate financials to see if it might, in fact, be a chicken, posing as duck.

    “Chicken. The other duck”

    “Do not scatter diamonds before ducks. They prefer grain”.

    -Chiun, the current Master of Sinanju

  • February 12, 2008

    CatherineL

    D Huerta – I’m sorry, but if Continental choose to be affiliated with them, then they have to live with the consequences of their errors. I so hope that mean stewardess was fired.

    And how foolish is the National Pork Board? I think it’s time these big companies accept that they can’t use their size and bullying tactics to push consumers round anymore. And that is what I love about the Internet.

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