Social bullying and its threat on corporations

While a corporation is rarely seen as a victim, the social bullying threat is real. So, what's a company to do?
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

Bullying, social or otherwise, has sadly been in the news a great deal over the last several months due to some of its tragic effects, thus creating an even larger movement against this vicious behavior. While a corporation is rarely seen as a victim, and the potential dangers to it are nowhere near the dangers of ganging up on an individual person, the social bullying threat against companies is real.

Bullying at its basic concept occurs when a victim is rendered helpless by the unwarranted attack of those around them. Many times the bullies are made more powerful by their level of popularity. In the corporate sense, the attacks are generally written or verbal, but an attack on a company by a popular social networker can still leave an indelible mark on the company's brand, or even its wallet. Some unreasonable consumers have gone social or used the social threat to extract better deals from businesses - whether it's free product replacements, shipping, unwarranted discounts or rapid service levels.

A controversial example of this occurred in August 2009 when mom blogger Heather Armstrong purchased a $1,300 Maytag washing machine and one week later, it broke. She reportedly called the maintenance people three times and each time they left without repairing her washer. She finally called Maytag customer service, requesting that they do something to help her and she claims that they didn’t. When she threatened to go to Twitter, they told her that didn’t matter, so she posted a series of tweets alerting her significant crop of followers to the disservice. Some of her tweets included all-caps screams of "DO NOT EVER BUY A MAYTAG" and called her experience "A TOTAL NIGHTMARE." Many related to Armstrong's experience and many also reacted. As a result, Armstrong received a personal call from Whirlpool (owners of Maytag) corporate headquarters and, after a few more hurdles, her washing machine was fixed the next day. She also received an offer for a brand new washing machine from BOSCH, which she declined but arranged for it to be donated to a local shelter -- a noble move.

The thing is, there's a fine line between demanding quality customer service and damaging a company's brand, and it's a line that is quite subjective. On one side, many saw Armstrong's behavior as rallying on behalf of the little guy and raising awareness of a larger problem that Maytag should've addressed. On the other side, many saw her as a bully, a whiner... someone taking advantage of her "status" to achieve resolution faster than others could. Of course, real celebrities have been taking advantage of their power for years, so why should it be different with social network celebrities? At the same time, should a person truly rallying for the little guy leverage his or her celebrity to help the company solve the long-term customer service issues rather than bleeding the company's crisis communications resources? Or, is that simply not her problem? Finally, was that the right approach for Whirlpool to take? They reacted because Armstrong has clout. But what message does that send to the unknown mother with the same issue? What did this do to the brand?

Dealing with social bullying in a fair and constructive way »

Social bullying has, indeed, become a prevalent threat to corporations. The concept of corporations landing in the unwieldy throes of social network complaints isn't by any means new. More than a year ago I wrote a piece about how social media rewards whining, enabling the idea that customers are not always right and, in some cases, are actually brutally opportunistic. All of this begs the question- how can businesses deal with C2B social bullying in a fair and constructive way that does not hurt the business, the customers or the brand?

I reached out to Anand Subramaniam, vice president of marketing at eGain, a company that has established its foothold in helping companies manage relations with customers. Subramaniam offers the following tips for companies concerned about social bullying:

  1. Monitor mentions of your business on an ongoing basis – look for typical bully talk, as well as legitimate complaints and positive comments so you can spot social bullying (as well as positive mentions), as it occurs.
  2. Respond but only selectively: Is the bully of high economic or social value to the business? Also consider a quick assessment of context, including past interactions. You need a multichannel customer interaction hub that contains a central repository of customer interactions across all channels. Also helps you take the bully private without asking him to repeat context and aggravate the situation further.
  3. Apply the same “substance”: The policies for social bullies should be the same as for any other “traditional” bully-customer in a similar situation. But with a polite but firm “style”: Not snarky or impatient that might trigger a social storm. There should be a unified customer interaction, knowledge, process and policy hub.
  4. Take the bully private for discreet handling, where possible: Don't lose context in the transition - this will aggravate the situation further. Bring back happy endings to the social cloud, as appropriate.
  5. Happiness is not universal: Accept that you cannot make everyone happy.
  6. Staff for social IQ: Hire agents and community managers with “social intelligence”, i.e. prudent extroverts who are emotionally intelligent. Empower any agent to handle bullies or any other customer in the same way that the best agent would – same, consistent, high-quality answers, handling process for bullies or other customers (e.g. what to say when, when to escalate to a supervisor, when to end the conversation).

"With social, the customer is an 'emperor', not just a 'king.' And, ultimately, social will drive businesses to become more customer-centric," he said. "Put in place the technology, process, people, practices and policy infrastructure in place a central hub for excellence in unified and consistent customer service across traditional and social media."

In the end, the truth is that bullying is a strong term and can be, especially in the case of Armstrong vs. Maytag, excessively harsh. This does not diminish the threat to corporations by those who might abuse their social network status. As Subramaniam describes above, companies need to have policies and training in place to help address these issues. More important, as more and more consumers take to social networks, companies need to consider these outcomes when developing their customer complaint remediation policies. In some cases, i.e. Maytag, it's possible that the perceived "bullying" may not have occurred if service was up to par in the first place. In other cases, even if the customer is not always right, the customers' voices, especially as a collective, are generally going to be much louder than that of the brands.

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