Is Disappearing Word of Mouth Worse than Bad Word of Mouth?by Michael Breazeale on 10/23/11
My partner and I recently went to a restaurant that we heard had an especially appealing menu for us. We traveled off the beaten path to find it and walked past the outdoor server who told us that he had a two-top for us inside. We seated ourselves and waited for menus . . . and waited . . . and waited. After about 15 minutes of waiting and exchanging confused looks with the staff that seemed to have no problem waiting on the other folks in what was trying to be a trendier-than-thou hole in the wall, we got up to leave. The only person to acknowledghe our presence since we stepped inside was a woman behind the bar who simply said, "Bye." My partner was so angry by the time that we got to the car that he turned around to let someone in charge know exactly why they had just lost the business of a family that eats out A LOT. He returned to the car a few minutes later, exasperated after being unable to find anyone who would even acknowledge his presence again. Unable to resolve the situation, he did what any disgruntled patron does in today's world -- he went to the restaurant's Facebook page and posted about our experience. He felt better knowing that other patrons might be warned and saved from the same experience. We went to dinner somewhere else and enjoyed the rest of our evening. The next morning we checked the Facebook page to see if anyone else has shared similar experiences. To our surprise, the restaurant's social media attendant had apparently been much more attentive than the waitstaff. His comment had been removed. This process has repeated several times since.
Being someone who researches and teaches retailing and word of mouth, I have been thinking about this situation a lot. How would a marketing-savvy company handle this situation. No company wants to see its own social media presence tarnished with bad reviews, but research shows that growing numbers of customers tend to rely on those reviews, even discounting the ones that are too glowing as possible "plants". But research also shows that a well-managed recovery from service failure often instills even more loyalty than the offended customer orginally experienced. So, the answer seems simple. A marketing-savvy company would have responded publicly to the complaint on their site with an apology and explanation of the poor service. Even if they didn't feel they were in error, this smart company would take advantage of the opportunity to show all of their site visitors that they are responsive to customer complaints. Since they had the contact information of the upset patron -- something that many service providers would love to have but often lack -- they could have sent a personal note asking for another chance. Even without offering any kind of consolation merchandise, they could repair the failure.
What this company did was something that many companies would rather do. They made the complaint disappear. Hoping that few people had seen it, they simply deleted it from their site. What they didn't know is that my partner is a pitbull when it comes to justice, and he has time to make sure that his complaint is reposted. Will the site visitors who notice this complaint that appears and reappears on their site like a flasing neon light think badly of the company that doesn't want to hear the bad things the their customers have to say, only the good?
Will this comment make a big difference in their bottom line? Probably not. But it does something that does a have long-lasting impact. It makes those potential customers who read reviews at company websites and other sites a little less trusting of the comments they see there. If the really bad ones are removed, then is there any value to reading the good ones? If conusmers lose confidence in their ability to trust these websites, they become useless. And if consumers lose confidence in their ability to complain effectively, what happens? As I write, there are a lot of people gathered in cities around the world as part of the "Occupy" movement who provide the answer to that question.
As marketing researchers we sometimes wonder whether our research matters to practitioners. This is an example of a case when practitioners should take note.