Crisis Communications: Stopping a misunderstood customer service experience from going viral

While giving the full explanation each time may not fully prevent customer service issues from going viral and it may make things worse if it frustrates the customer, it can prevent others who are overhearing the conversation from making up their own story and creating a viral crisis via social media.

A photo of empty seats on a Southwest Airlines airplane
“Southwest Airlines” by Kevin Dooley, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Recently, a friend gave me a copy of the Aircraft Owners and Pilot’s Association’s (AOPA) Flight Training magazine to read an article subtitled Who really suffers after an airline incident goes viral.

The article highlights a couple of recent airline customer service experiences, such as a man being dragged-off a United Airlines flight, and how could have been solved in more productive ways. It also argues that, had the whole story of some of these recent incidences been what the public saw, the court of public judgement may have judged the incidences differently.

The latter point is what interested me, as it emphasizes one of the most fundamental principles of crisis communication: If you don’t give people the whole story, they will make up the information they are missing.

And it gives us a way to potentially solve the issue. Customer service representatives need to make sure that EVERY time they discuss they issue, they give the full story and preferably in every sentence. 

In the case of two teenage girls not able to board a United flight because they were wearing leggings, the reason was that they were using “buddy passes” which have strict dress codes. While I wasn’t there and can only surmise what happened, I’m guessing the gate agent, who was probably in a rush, probably said something like “Sorry, you two are’t properly dressed to board this flight” when the Shannon Watts (the woman who complained about it on twitter) overheard. What’s missing from the above version? The full story about them being on buddy passes.

What would it look like to explain the full story in this situation?

Gate agent: You are traveling on a free buddy ticket and your outfit does not meet the dress code for using a free buddy ticket.

Ladies: What?

Gate agent: You are traveling on a free buddy ticket and your outfit does not meet the dress code for using a free buddy ticket. Do you have something else you can change into that meets the dress code for using a free buddy ticket?

Ladies: We didn’t know that. What’s the dress code?

Gate agent: Here is the dress code for using a free buddy ticket. Do you have something else you can change into that meets the dress code for using a free buddy ticket?

But this is hard, gets redundant and takes time in a stressful situation, so people start taking shortcuts.

Gate agent: You don’t meet the dress code, is there something else you can change into?

Reading the above, you can see how, if someone just heard this statement, they could start making-up the rest of the story.

While giving the full explanation each time may not fully prevent customer service issues from going viral and it may make things worse if it frustrates the customer (more trial of this is needed to understand and refine), it can prevent others who are overhearing the conversation from making up their own story and creating a viral crisis via social media.

And when you find yourself on the flip side and the person who overhears, PLEASE take a minute to find out the rest of the story before you pass judgement. I know, easier said than done, and I mess this up all the time, but the more we do this, the less issues we will all have.

 

 

Don’t allow photography in your store? It might be costing you sales

“I’m sorry ma’am, we don’t allow photos,” called a clerk to me while I was visiting a local artist shop in Chicago. I smiled and put my camera phone away. This isn’t the first time that I’ve been stopped from taking photographs in stores and it won’t be the last. It happens most often to me with shops with unique, local artisan items, and I can understand why. They don’t want people taking photos so they can copy their ideas. But what they don’t realize is, they might be saving themselves from copycats, but they are also losing sales.

What the clerk above didn’t realize in the above example is that I was trying to make a sale for him; I was taking a photo because the sculpture would have fit perfectly in my friend’s home and I was sending him a photograph to see if he would like me to pick it up for him. In fact, most of the time I take a photograph in a store, it’s to ask someone else if they’d like me to purchase the item for them.

Two reasons people take photos in stores:

Taking photos allows them to buy things for others

It used to be that people would call friends or family when they saw something that the other might like and then the friend or family member would make the trip to see it. The younger generations found a way to skip the trip (unless it’s necessary), by taking photographs and offering to purchase and transport items for them.

Taking photos helps them to share your products

The other way the younger generations are using photographs is to show their friends and family cool new projects and/or let their friends know about cool promotions. Check out this Facebook post by one of my friends below. Do you think Starbucks is upset that she took and posted this photo?

Starbucks sandwich sign free drink

So, if you have a “no photos” policy, I’m not saying you have to get rid of it. But weigh that decision carefully. Is it worth missed sales to protect your items? What is the likelihood of copycats?

Think about how viral content is shared to ensure your message stays intact


Kellogg Community College math professor, Marcus Anderson, created the YouTube video “Bad Email Reply – What not to say to your professor…” above and it recently went viral. I personally saw it on my Facebook newsfeed and on my Feedly.

The problem is, only PART of his message went viral. The video was shared, but not his comments below it explaining that the email was a fake example and that he hadn’t violated student privacy by sharing it. This lead to a lot of people becoming very upset at him.  On his YouTube page for the video, he explains:

“Most importantly, that email was not a word-for-word copy of a student’s email. This is a mash up of many poor emails, some common email mistakes and some of my own embellishment compiled into one email. Let me repeat: I would never post an email of a student to the Internet nor would I suggest anyone else ever doing that. Therefore, cartmanrulez99 is not real person.”

Again, because this information was in the comments section and not in the actual video, when the video is embedded (like it is above) and shared, the complete message is lost. For example, here is the description from Laughing Squid for the video:

Marcus Anderson, a math professor at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Michigan, recently created a video where he critiques an email sent to him from one of his students. The student, whose email address starts off with “cartmanrulez99″, writes to the professor as if he is a best friend for life, drops a winky face, uses shortcuts when spelling out words (u, lol, and thx), requests handouts for each of the four classes missed, and then goes ahead and asks for the actual class book.”

What can we learn from this

The big takeaway for all of us is to really think about how our messages could be shared and take any steps necessary to make sure that the message we want to communicate stays intact. In this case, the message that it wasn’t a real student should have been included in the video.

This also serves as a great reminder to check the source of the information you receive. Until I clicked-through to the YouTube and read his comments, I also was under the impression that it was a real student email.

Marketing music via the Internet, an ongoing evolution

My friend and I spent our Friday evening this past week at a Straight No Chaser concert in Houston, TX.  Their performance opened with a video of how to enjoy the concert. During that video, they made a point, at least twice, to encourage people to take photos and videos of the performance and post them online (tagging, hashtagging, etc. them of course).  Then, during the performance, they took photos of the crowd and asked us to go on their Facebook page and tag ourselves They explained that they had a limited marketing budget and social media was an effective way to get their message out.

Considering that the popularity of Straight No Chaser began when one of their members posted a video of them on YouTube and it went viral (see video above), it’s not shocking that this group has embraced social media and the online world as they have, but it is quite unusual.  Over the years, I’ve watched with great interest as the music world struggles to find the perfect balance with the online world. As it stands now, most musicians seem to tolerate online videos and photos of their concerts and some will even ask you to tweet your experience using a hashtag. But Straight No Chaser has taken it a step further by asking fans to actively post videos of their performances online.

Do I think it’s a good idea? Yes. People go to the concerts for the experience and to hear the music live. No video is going to overcome that thirst for the experience.  But is it good for all musicians? I’d say yes, but would love to hear your thoughts.

On another note, I chose NOT to take photos and videos during the concert because I wanted to just sit back and enjoy the experience. For more on my thoughts about this, read: Put down the camera and enjoy the moment.

Thanks, John Kerfoot, for showing us how to laugh at ourselves

This post is dedicated to someone I’ve never met, but want to thank.

For those of you “non-Michiganders,” you might not be familiar with John Kerfoot, but he’s very popular in Michigan. He owns Tri-Foot productions and is an instructor at Wayne State University, but we all know him because he’s the guy that publishes the Not So Pure Michigan videos.

The Back Story

A couple years back, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation decided they needed to do something to increase tourism. So, they produced an advertising/branding campaign titled Pure Michigan. The campaign, including television ads, are very well received and seem to do a lot of good for tourism for the State of Michigan. But, to those of us in Michigan, the ads are a stretch because we see the good AND the bad.

Enter John Kerfoot

The videographer very quickly began creating spoofs of the ads (which, most advertisers will tell you, is the ultimate compliment) and they went viral. Not only that, but his videos (which, a warning, contain a lot of swearing) are primarily responsible, in my opinion, for inspiring a whole new, sarcastic meaning to the phrase “Pure Michigan.” Examples:

  • If you see something that is completely unattractive, like a garbage dump, it’s not uncommon in Michigan for someone to point to it and say “See that? Pure Michigan.”
  • During a presentation on Broken Windows that I gave at a military base, I asked a high-ranking  officer what he thought of a picture I’d taken of a horrible billboard ad in Michigan. He smiled and sarcastically said, “Pure Michigan.”

Recently, via Facebook, he announced that he’s retiring the series. Even though I now live in Texas, I’m deeply saddened by the news. I still love watching his videos and happily share them with my friends in Texas who want to see the “other” side of Michigan. He’s taught us “Michiganders” to laugh at ourselves and he’s provided a great example of advertising spoofing done well.

So, John, I just want to say, thanks for the laughs. I’m going to miss your Pure Michigan series, but look forward to your future work.

And now, my favorite Pure Michigan videos (again, a warning, they do contain profanity and could potentially be offensive to some):

Stealth Marketing: Where is the ethical line?

A Narrative

You wake up in the morning, check your Facebook page, and read how one of your friends discovered a really cool new protein bar that they love and you make a mental note to try it next time you hit the store. At the beach later in the day, a couple stops you and asks you to take a quick video of them with their cool new mini-camera so they can post it on YouTube. On the drive home, you turn on the radio and hear your favorite song and it makes you crank it up and sing along. When you get home, you relax on the couch and turn on your favorite news station only to hear that your favorite pro-athlete has a condition that may affect her future in the game. But, luckily, she’s found a treatment that is working and should be back to her competitions soon. Later that evening, you have a pre-dinner drink and meet a very attractive woman. She invites you outside for a smoke and then offers you a cigarette from her pack. Later, at the club, you wander into the bathroom and silently curse your fellow clubbers because the bathroom floor is strewn with energy drink cans they were too lazy to throw away.

What you don’t realize is:

  • Your friend on Facebook is a pusher, paid by the protein bar company in free bars to post positive comments on his social media sites.
  • The couple at the beach were paid actors who asked you to take the video so you would willingly try out the technology of a camera that was just introduced.
  • Your favorite pop song included lyrics about a particular brand of clothing, which the pop star was paid to insert into her song.
  • The athlete really does have a medical condition and the medicine they are promoting did help them, but they are talking about it because they are being paid by the drug company to do so.
  • The very attractive woman was an actress paid by the cigarette brand she offered you to get you to try the cigarette (writers note: I don’t endorse smoking at all).
  • The energy drink cans were purposely thrown on the club bathroom floor by paid promoters to make you think people at the club are drinking them a lot.

Think the above doesn’t happen? Think again. This is the world of stealth marketing and its use by major companies is growing very rapidly as you, the consumer, learn to tune-out traditional media.

Is it ethical?

Stealth marketing raises a lot of ethical issues about advertising integrity and consumer groups are beginning to fight back against, what they consider, subliminal advertising. But the question is, where is that line? Is it ok to spread false rumors about a movie to increase ticket sales (Blair Witch Project)? Is it ok to pay actresses to go to popular bars and request only certain brands in a noticeable way in a crowd to try to influence the other bar patrons?

Are we really to a point where we have to ask women and men at the bar if they are paid promoters? Photo from Flickr: Parker Michael Knight

A potential solution

I don’t really have an answer, but I do have a thought: One option is to apply the reasonable man standard used to determine most advertising deception cases and apply it to stealth marketing. Using this methodology, a stealth marketing campaign would be deemed as going too far if a reasonable man (woman) would be upset if they found out about the marketing effort. So, for example, would a reasonable man be upset to find out an energy drink company had strewn cans on a club floor purposefully? Probably not. Would a reasonable man be upset to find out the pretty woman who had pretended to be interested in him was just trying to get him to try a cigarette? Yes, I think so.

That’s not to say using the reasonable man standard barometer doesn’t have its issues. Consumers may not understand the larger impact and thus not get upset or it may be difficult to determine if or how upset a reasonable man would get. But, I believe it’s better than what we have now, which is nothing except self-regulation. And, if the narrative above scares you as much as it does me, then you’ll agree that something needs to be done.

Gillette razors: Will their pricing strategy be their demise?


‘I wanted to ask you whether you’d got any razor blades,’ he said.

‘Not one!’ said Winston with a sort of guilty haste. ‘I’ve tried all over the place. They don’t exist any longer.’

Everyone kept asking you for razor blades. Actually he had two unused ones which he was hoarding up. There had been a famine of them for months past. At any given moment there was some necessary article which the Party shops were unable to supply. Sometimes it was buttons, sometimes it was darning wool, sometimes it was shoelaces; at present it was razor blades. You could only get hold of them, if at all, by scrounging more or less furtively on the ‘free’ market.

‘I’ve been using the same blade for six weeks,’ he added untruthfully.

– George Orwell’s 1984

If you are like me, you have a love/hate relationship with Gillette razors. Sometime seems very wrong with spending upwards of $4 per razor blade that will last a little over a week. It’s an expensive I simply would prefer to avoid. So, avoid I’ve tried. I’ve tried every other type of razor out there from the Meijer brand razor blades to ShopSavvy’s recommendation of the CVS Pharmacy razor blades (which, by they way, I found to be very unsafe to use). But, I’ve never found a razor blade that can compare to Gillette brands. So, grudgingly, I continue to buy them.

That’s why the article “A David and Gillette Story” from the Wall Street Journal gives me hope. Gillette has enjoyed years of expansive growth without ever having to reconsider its pricing strategy, but it looks like that may be changing.  In general, I think marketers don’t pay enough attention to the price part of the 4 P’s. But, in Gillette’s case, ignoring the price part of their marketing strategy might just be their demise. Or, at the very least, cost them significant market share. They’ve ignored the calls from their consumers for a lower-priced, quality blade and their consumers like me aren’t too happy about it. I buy Gillette razor blades because I don’t have a viable alternative. But the minute I do have one, I’ll switch.

So congrats to Dollar Shave Club for asking us all to rethink the price of our blades and good luck to Gillette as they reevaluate their pricing strategy.

A warning: The video below contains implied explicit content.