The Power of Public Opinion
One well-publicized complaint could be all it takes to tarnish your company's reputation
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Do you remember playing the game of "Operator" when you were a small child? The game was usually played at a birthday party. Kids would sit in a circle and a whispered message would be passed from one person to the next. If someone didn't hear the message, he or she could say "operator" to have the phrase repeated. The last person in the circle would then repeat the message aloud. Usually, what that person heard bore no resemblance at all to the original message.

Your company's reputation for customer service is determined, in part, by a system suspiciously like the game of Operator. Nearly everyone has heard the accepted wisdom that when customers have a bad experience, they'll pass it along to 10 acquaintances. When they have a good experience, they may only tell three people about it. But what's not accounted for is the exaggeration that may take place when customers tell other people about their experiences. And as the story gets passed along to more and more people, the facts may become even more distorted.

The advent of the Internet means that customers have more ways than ever to vent their displeasure with a company's customer service policies. For example, eLoyalty.net distributes a newsletter that contains a column entitled "A Detour from Along the Road to Loyalty." Customers can write in with their stories of poor customer service and one complaint is published on the Web site and included on the e-mail newsletter. Another Web site, eCaveat.com, allows customers to write in with service complaints, which the site will then attempt to mediate--a sort of high-tech ombudsman service. Other visitors to the site can easily search complaints and can even chime in with their own horror stories of poor customer service in the "Collective Voice" section. The site also provides links to news articles about customer service gone wrong. There is some good news, however: Both eLoyalty.net and eCaveat.com publish stories about excellent customer service as well.

But on the Web, there's no guarantee that your company's customer service strengths and weaknesses will be fairly reported. Any disgruntled customer can create a Web site to make his or her views known. For example, a search for Bally's Total Fitness will turn up the "Bally's Total Fitness Sucks" Web site, where one former member of Bally's started posting his negative comments. A guest book now allows all site visitors to add their complaints to the file, and those visitors are free to vent their anger as they see fit. The sheer number of complaints would make it impossible for the site's creator to fact check them. It's easy to see how some of the complaints might be exaggerated. It's freedom of speech, to be sure, and Bally's lost the lawsuit it filed against the Web site's creator. But clearly, the Web site portrays a negative image of Bally's to many more people than could ever be reached through word of mouth. And Bally's isn't the only company to be hit with negative press on the Web. A search for Disney turns up the expected sites such as Disneyland.com, but newsgroups such as alt.disney.criticism and alt.disney.the-evil-empire are also displayed. A search for Amazon.com turns up at least one site calling for a boycott of the online superstore.

The moral of the story is that companies must be aware of how their actions influence public opinion. With tools like the Internet making it easier than ever for the dissatisfied customer to be heard, one well-publicized complaint can leave hundreds of potential customers with a negative impression. Just like in the game of Operator, one complaint can be heard over and over and interpreted in many different ways, so it's most important for companies to provide good customer service from the outset, rather than trust that customers will forgive their missteps.

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