Crack-smoking social bots (and other brand meltdowns caused by silos)

Crack-smoking social bots (and other brand meltdowns caused by silos)

This holiday season, I decided to splurge on holiday cards ordered from the online printing company well known for their precious family photo cards. Taking this step cost about 30% more, and it also required me to get my act together and actually order our cards well in advance, so they’d have time to print and ship.

Because I was keeping my eye on my fast-shrinking holiday timeline and expanding holiday to-do list, when I received an email notice from the printer that the cards had shipped, I checked the FedEx tracker a couple times a day to watch their progress. Yet the shipment status remained unchanged, and within a couple of days the “delivery by” date mysteriously changed to “N/A.”

My first instinct was to send an email to the print company’s customer care department. When I didn’t hear anything back in 24 hours, I took my woes to Twitter (congratulating myself on the social media savvy that would score me VIP treatment). But though I received a rapid public response to my tweet, inviting me to send a direct message with my order number so the rep could investigate, the issue wasn’t resolved.

At this point, I was astonished to not receive at least some kind of explanation, but I still assumed my case was an isolated mix-up. Not until I called the customer service number and was alerted to a 90-minute hold time did I become aware that something bigger and more alarming was going on.

Breakdown: I’m standin’ here, can’t you see?

To make a very long story short, I never did get my damn holiday cards. But I was one of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people in the same boat. A company that previously had a spotless reputation for service and quality was unable to fulfill many of its orders. Some people’s cards just never got printed. Some had shipping snafus or had their cards accidentally destroyed by the print facility. Some received a completely different family’s cards instead of their own.

How do I know all this? Because many of these people were hanging out on the printing company’s Facebook page and hashtagging them on Twitter, sharing their anger, disappointment, dismay, frustration and warnings to others to avoid the company at all costs.

To each angry post, a social media rep would reply with a comment like: “I’m sorry this is happening. Please send us a message with your order number and we’ll look into this.” These responses appeared after every comment and reply, even the snarky ones — leading me to believe the reps were, in fact, crack-smoking bots instead of people exercising good judgment and logic.

The entire experience was a customer service meltdown of massive proportions. Yet while all hell was breaking loose on the company’s Facebook page, its Facebook newsfeed chattered on with messages that promoted last-minute orders of holiday cards, with the promise they’d arrive before Christmas, and posed chatty questions about how followers were spending their break and what they were cooking for holiday dinner.

Each post was followed by several comments from desperate customers sharing their horror stories. One customer pointed out how unethical it was for the company to continue promoting “last-chance-to-order” holiday card deadlines when the cards wouldn’t have a chance of showing up in time.

We all own the experience — together

The 2013 holiday season was fraught with bumpy service, probably due to the unprecedented amount of online shopping. UPS suffered the embarrassment of not being able to carry through on deliveries in time for Christmas. But UPS apologized (as did Nordstrom and Amazon.com, even though it wasn’t their fault).

The printing company, on the other hand, came across as tone-deaf at best — and deliberately misleading at worst. Weeks later, after the holidays were a dot in the rearview mirror, customers were still posting on the page warning others to never order from the company again.

For whatever reason, the company’s social media team pretended that hundreds of disgruntled customers weren’t plastering their happy Facebook feed with angry comments, and instead to plow ahead with unwavering cheer. As the company’s operations publicly melted down around them, the people posting the social content were living in the land of sparkles and champagne, carefree festivities, and can’t-fail expedited shipping. They focused their message on new customers who hadn’t yet experienced the letdown of the company experience, and ignored the reality that their company couldn’t follow through on this happy shiny picture they painted.

It’s in times like these that the breakdown in communication channels becomes so horrifyingly apparent to the outside world. I can only picture what was going on during those days leading up to the holiday. The social media writer was sitting in her cubicle on one side of the building, writing sales-focused calls to action and witty, sparkly copy. That was her job, and she could not be stopped. On the other side of the building, the customer-service team was trying to at least create the illusion they were monitoring social media channel support requests, but obviously weren’t empowered to resolve issues that way.

In the middle of the building (or perhaps in another city altogether) was the PR team, which should actually have helped to guide the response to what I’d clearly identify as a crisis. But someone decided that the best way to deal with it is to let it just blow over or, at the very least, no one was able to step up and coordinate a logical response.

And that lack of coordination was devastating to the company’s brand. In one holiday season, this well-regarded print company suddenly created a vocal population of angry and disappointed ex-customers who vowed to never use the company again, and to share their negative experience on social media. With no apology or public acknowledgement of a problem, nor announcement that the problem has been resolved, the company is now happily focusing its social content and paid advertising on Valentine’s Day promotions — and has strewn behind it formerly loyal customers it will never win back.

This episode is a not-so-gentle reminder: each one of us responsible for an aspect of the customer relationship holds a precious piece of the brand experience in our hands. There’s no such thing as “our territory” or “their job.” All of us, together, own the experience — and it’s fragile, lovingly constructed, and too easily bruised and broken. We must work together to see the world through our customers’ eyes, and to communicate with them in ways that satisfy their needs and delight them emotionally.

When we don’t, it shows and consumers have no patience for it. Your history with them may not buy you time to get it right — research shows 89% of customers will abandon their relationship with a company after just one poor customer service experience. It’s more important than ever for the silos to come down and for companies to get their stories straight and to connect in an authentic way with their customers, across all their communication channels and touchpoints. A great place to start is to take the keys to your social platforms away from those crackhead bots.

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