In customer relationship, silence isn't always golden

Ask anyone and they'll almost certainly have a personal horror customer service story to relate. And most organizations know the relationship they have with their customers can mean the difference between a loyal brand follower and a fervent brand trasher.

Ask anyone and they'll almost certainly have a personal horror customer service story to relate. And most organizations know the relationship they have with their customers can mean the difference between a loyal brand follower and a fervent brand trasher.

But, many businesses today still fail to understand how customer relationships should be managed in an era of viral messaging and social communication, where transparency is more relevant than ever.

In this week's blog, another member of my team, Kevin Kwang, discusses why reticence isn't always a good thing in the business realm, especially when angry customers demand answers not only in a timely fashion but that directly address the root of the problem.

With social media and networking sites thriving, communication devices such as Apple's iOS and Android-powered mobile devices flooding the markets--both consumer and enterprise--and global data traffic expected to hit 8,000 petabytes this year, it can be said that our human society has well and truly entered the Information Age.

But despite the myriad channels and sophistry of communications available to them, some companies continue to follow the adage of "silence is golden", to their detriment.

Taiwanese PC maker, Acer, for one, did not respond well when its Packard Bell server in Europe was hacked on Jun. 3 this year. The hacker group Pakistan Cyber Army took credit for stealing personal information of 40,000 Packard Bell customers, which included their names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and the devices they had bought. Screenshots of the stolen data were also posted online.

The crux of the matter here lies in the post-crisis communications, or to be more precise, the lack thereof. One of the earliest comments from the company came from Lisa Emard, director of media relations for Acer America, during an interview with ComputerWorld, but it was a non-statement saying that its U.S. operations have no information on the breach and is trying to get a response from its European counterparts. Ten days later, the company verified the content of data stolen matched those reported earlier and added that no credit card details were compromised and that investigations were ongoing.

These updates, however, were not enough for one of its customers who wrote in to ZDNet Asia to complain about the lack of transparency from Acer and of efforts to reassure customers regarding the breach and who were affected.

Joseph Chuah, an IT professional in Singapore, related in an e-mail that after learning about the breach, he sent a total of three e-mail messages to Acer America's technical support to find out if his personal information had been compromised during the attack, but the company did not reply. Chuah subsequently followed up with an e-mail to Acer's privacy officer, but also has yet to receive a response.

Acer's inaction has left him disgruntled. Chuah said: "Even with the security breach, I might not have blacklisted Acer products. But because of its poor customer communication, I strongly doubt that I would purchase an Acer product in the future and will ensure that when asked, my opinions would work against Acer."

When quizzed, an Acer spokesperson reiterated the details of the breach that had been reported earlier, only adding that Packard Bell is commercially available only in Europe and the company is still looking into the matter.

The Taiwanese PC maker, however, is not the only tech company that has shown tardy customer communications in recent times.

Japanese electronics giant Sony's reputation took a huge hit earlier when its Playstation Network went down after hackers from Anonymous breached its barriers in April. The attacks continued through the month of May as blackhats hit back at the company's efforts to clamp down on people jailbreaking its consoles. CEO Howard Stringer, in particular, was singled out as going MIA (missing in action) in the early days when news of the security breach broke, leaving the responsibility of disseminating updates and fending queries instead to his subordinates--Kazuo Hirai, chairman of Sony Computer Entertainment, and senior director of corporate communications, Patrick Seybold.

He finally issued a statement on May 6, offering his apologies and giving more details about the identity-theft monitoring system it offered to affected users to make up for its security lapses.

But these gestures did not placate irate users who took to the forum boards and Twitter to express their dissatisfaction. One of them, British professional footballer Jay Bothroyd who plays for Cardiff City in the U.K., reportedly said in a tweet: "This playstation network is getting ridiculous now might go to the dark side!!!!" The "dark side" Bothroyd referred to is, presumably, Microsoft's rival console platform, Xbox.

The common refrain among consumers in both situations mentioned above was how poor communications had made a bad situation worse. This leads me to wonder if companies truly understand the global nature of social media and how negative comments go viral at the blink of an eye. If they do, have they recalibrated their customer response mechanisms to better cope with crisis when they inevitably crop up?

Silence may indeed be golden in some situations but during crises, timely updates and transparency, as well as a sense of empathy, will go a long way to retain customers' trust and loyalty.