by Max Weinstein Bacal
Information bombards us at all times, from all directions. We don’t always like it, or even want it. Yet we invite this barrage—of sights, sounds, ads, testimonials, opinions, anecdotes, Tweets, blogs—into our lives like so many enticing TV vampires. It might be fun at first, but eventually you get the feeling it’s starting to suck the life out of you.
Short of pursuing your wildest Jack London-esque naturalist fantasies, there isn’t much you can do. So what do you do? You become more discerning about what you listen to, and more importantly, who you trust. Social media has brought on a total paradigm shift in how consumers perceive brands, and how they convey this perception to others. Crowdsourced websites are now a standard for finding information online, including information on brands. My own personal experience is a slightly terrifying example of this, and it took some keen investigation through crowdsourced information to find an answer that I could trust.
A few months back, my girlfriend and I were making plans for a weekend jaunt to New York to attend the Jazz Age Lawn Party, a throwback celebration of Dixie jazz, 1920’s flapper-style garb and copious bourbon sipping. Our primary concern for the trip was how severely we were going to embarrass ourselves attempting to do the Charleston (very severely, as it was). The second: where the heck where we going to stay.
For reasons I can’t recall (sorry metrics nerds) I had booked flights through Travelocity, who had later made me aware of their “Top Secret Hotels” program. It’s a fairly ingenious tactic to entice the non-discriminatory traveler; pick your ideal price and your ideal neighborhood—the important stuff. The catch: you don’t know which hotel you’re booking until you’ve paid.
But if you’re not picky, then the rest is just details, right? Sure, provided you consider having your blood sucked out of your body in the middle of the night simply being “details”. And I’m not talking about sexy TV vampires this time.
As it turned out, we had the good fortune of securing a room in a four-star hotel in the middle of Times Square for cheaper than I’ve paid for rooms at a Red Roof Inn. All that was left to do was look up the address. Google delivered that, and something a great deal more harrowing. Three listings below the hotel’s website was the URL for a site called bedbugregistry.com. This is when I was abruptly reminded of the fact that NYC has been in the middle of a bed bug epidemic. The scale of this city-wide infestation was made creepily clear when a crowd-sourced Google map displayed more markers indicating bed bug incidents than buildings in the frame.
A friend had once told me that pretty much the only full-proof remedy for a bed bug infestation was to burn all your earthly possessions and drive out of town naked, never looking back. This was not an appealing option, having just recently moved to a new city. Fighting that creepy crawly feeling, I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and set out to get to the bottom of my vacation debacle.
My first instinct was to call the hotel’s customer service to see if they could shed any light on the situation, and if it was dire, seek a refund. Customer service transferred me to the management, who proceeded to verbally ramble and meander around a canned statement where they denied having ever hosted a bug of any kind, nonetheless those of a blood-sucking variety. Responses to my questions were very dismissive—“Those reports were probably made by people trying to scam the hotel” and “They could have caught bedbugs from someone at the airport”; the topic obviously made the representative uneasy. This made me uneasy. After fifteen minutes on the phone without an honest acknowledgment of my concerns, I took my investigation to the people.
Yelp was able to shed more light on my situation. Several users had written reviews for the hotel mentioning encounters with bed bugs. A few accounts told of blatant lying on the part of hotel representatives (apparently people don’t appreciate being told “there are no bed bugs in your room” after waking up covered in bites, pulling up the sheets and finding bed bugs). These accounts were dated some months prior, some as far back as six and seven months. We followed up with reviews on Yahoo! and TripAdvisor, among other sites, finding more accounts of bed buggery—but again, posted some months back. Paranoid and preemptively itchy, my girlfriend and I mulled our options. Finally we decided, lacking more recent warnings of bed bugs in the hotel in question, that we would take our chances and honor our reservation.
Now that you are likely crawling out of your own skin, you may now ponder: what is to be learned by this experience?
The brand-to-consumer conversation is now a two-way street, and brands can no longer preach and sell from on high. Consumers are not hesitant to admonish the brands that they see as doing wrong. If a burger joint sold you a sandwich with a toenail in it, you would probably bring that burger, with said toenail, back to the counter and ask for some kind of retribution. And what would you do if they told you “There is no toenail”? You would probably turn around, show it to the customer behind you and walk out, along with the rest of the now-disgusted coulda-been clientele waiting in line. With social media ala Facebook, Twitter and Yelp being the authoritative source for consumer information and insights, when a brand pulls a stunt akin to the real-life bed bug debacle or toenail parable the consumer doesn’t just inform that person in line behind them. They inform the whole Internet, and the whole Internet listens.
An incident like this is obviously bad business. Consumers trust other consumers. There isn’t any way around this, and brands do not want to be on the wrong side of consumer trust. So what can brands do?
Admit mistakes and confront them, before the angry consumer confronts you. Because when they do, they won’t hesitate to castigate you for all of Yelp, Twitter and Facebook to see. A brand should strive to offer the best product possible, and do everything they can to make it up to the consumer if they haven’t. If a consumer feels shortchanged, or if they feel their concerns are not readily met and resolved, they won’t hesitate to take their business elsewhere, but not before reading the riot act to the affronting brand before they do. This doesn’t mean, however, that social media is the enemy of the brand.
Brands need to use social media to address consumers’ issues head-on and directly. Social media can help a brand mitigate damage in a negative situation. Consumers positively perceive brands that actively engage with social media users to address their problems, especially on a one-on-one basis. It portrays a brand in a positive light when they are hands-on and direct in resolving issues, as opposed to dismissive and indirect. Brands can look themselves up on Twitter; if they find someone complaining about a product or service, surprise that consumer by reaching out to them directly. A reply Tweet from a brand can be both surprising and comforting. Consumers often bring their concerns to a brand’s Facebook wall. This is an excellent place for a brand to participate in two-way conversation with a consumer. Do a good job handling a situation and others will see the effort. Just be sure to approach this tactic carefully, and with a heavy hand of discretion.
Brands: please don’t sweep a customer’s concern under the rug; thanks to the explosive and viral nature of social media, it won’t stay there long. Like so many bed bugs, it will come back to bite you.
Luckily, I did not suffer such a fate, and actually had a quite wonderful trip in NYC. I did learn that, if you’re vacationing in a city with a massive bed bug infestation, you might not want to blindly pick hotels, no matter how cheap the price tag is. Patrolling for critters in my sheets is not my ideal vision of a hotel experience.