When influential mommyblogger and power Twitterer @dooce (Heather B. Armstrong) tweeted about her ongoing service problems with a recently purchased Maytag washing machine, she ignited a firestorm of controversy that raised important questions about the power of celebrity, the state of customer relations, the vulnerability of brand reputation, and the influence of social media.
If you don’t know about the @dooce vs. #Maytag twitterstorm by now, your social media radar is broken. I’m not going to rehash the whole controversy (you can read @dooce’s side of the story here), but here’s the Reader’s Digest version: Mom with prolifically pooping newborn buys a $1,300 Maytag washing machine (a Maytag Performance Series 4.4 Cu. Ft. IEC Capacity Front Load Steam Washer, to be precise) AND the 10-year extended warranty. Within a week, the washer is broken. 23 days and 3 visits from the repairman later, and the washer is still broken. Repeated phone calls to the retailer, the repair shop, and the Maytag customer service center, and the washer is still broken. No replacement, no loaner, only a surly customer service rep, an indifferent customer service manager, and a promise that another repairman can be dispatched in another 3-5 days. Frustrated and fed up, mom decides to tweet about her experience thusly:
Now, if this were any other mom, or just about any other Twitterer, that little tirade would’ve had about as much oomph as a butterfly fart in a hurricane. But this is @dooce we’re talking about – New York Times bestselling author, Technorati Top 100 blogger, #26 on Forbes’ list of the most influential women in media. Oh yeah, and at the time she posted her Twitter rant, she had a smidge over 1.1 million followers. Clearly, Maytag stepped on the wrong mommy’s toes.
What followed is a critical lesson for businesses about the reach and impact of social media, and the importance of customer service in an age of engaged and empowered consumers. As you might imagine, the complaints of a well-connected member of the Twitterati and self-made Web celeb can’t go unnoticed, and in this case didn’t. Within hours, @dooce was contacted (via Twitter) by @HomeDepot, @WhirlpoolCorp (owner of the Maytag brand), and even Maytag competitor @boschappliances, which offered to provide a free Bosch washing machine to replace the Maytag lemon. After a call with Jeff Piraino, manager of the executive offices of Whirlpool in Michigan, a new repairman was dispatched and the washer was fixed within 24 hours. Problem solved, right? Not quite. Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to figure out who the winners and losers are, and to reflect on the consequences of social media for consumers and businesses.
@dooce: Her complaints were finally heard and acknowledged, her washer got fixed, and she picked up another 100,000 followers in the weeks following her initial posts. Sure, a few of her fellow mommybloggers and some corporate PR hacks called her out for leveraging her following and influence to bully Maytag, but the fact of the matter is that Maytag dropped the customer service ball and they got called out – and rightly so. The fact that @dooce’s celebrity made her complaint more audible is really beside the point (this point, anyway). Social media amplifies the power of consumers to talk back to brands – whether that talk is positive or negative – and the best brands are going to listen, react, respond and improve. For those that choose to ignore this new consumer reality, well, your days are numbered.
Consumers: Like I said, social media empowers consumers, and that’s a good thing for all of us. The best brands – those intent on creating and selling quality products, behaving in a socially responsible way, and committed to providing exemplary customer service – have nothing to fear, and in fact are more likely to succeed as their reputations are bolstered by the social conversations of satisfied customers. It’s the other brands that need to be afraid, and I have a hard time working up tears over their self-made misfortune.
@HomeDepot: It’s unclear whether the Maytag machine in question was purchased at Home Depot, but the retail giant was among the first to respond to @dooce’s complaint, offering to remedy the situation even if it wasn’t purchased at one of their stores. More than just a good PR move, the timely offer indicates that Home Depot is effectively monitoring and appropriately using social media. They’re not just monitoring Twitter conversations for mentions of their brand, but of the brands they carry. Kudos, Home Depot.
@boschappliances: Maytag’s failure was a golden opportunity for its competitors, and Bosch Appliances wasted no time in pouncing. By my count, Bosch wins three ways. First, they one-up Home Depot in the social media diligence department by listening to feedback not just about their own products, but their competitors’ as well. Social media provides a whole new way to keep an eye on the competition, and Bosch is doing it right. Second, Bosch scores PR points while rubbing Maytag’s nose in it by offering to replace the defective washer with one of their own – free of charge. Now that’s customer service. Finally, after @dooce declines their generous offer but suggests (at the advice of a follower) Bosch donate the new machine to a Salt Lake City shelter, Bosch quickly agrees, scoring a PR home run.
@WhirlpoolCorp and Maytag: Sure, they eventually made good by fixing the defective washer at the center of this controversy, but the brand image took a serious hit in the process. Thanks to an unresponsive retailer, an ineffective repairman, a surly customer service rep, an indifferent customer service manager, and – let’s face it – a lemon of a product, this single experience has become a powerful counter-narrative that makes a mockery of those bored Maytag Repairman commercials. A brand whose reputation was built on the idea of reliability has suddenly become the poster child for corporate indifference and shoddy customer service. And let’s not forget, it took an audience of millions to goad Whirlpool/Maytag into responding. You can bet your major appliance that you and I wouldn’t be getting a call from Mr. Piraino if we went through a similar ordeal, and this fact isn’t lost on consumers. As Michelle McGinty wrote in her BeliefNet article on the subject, “I could care less that they fixed her machine since I know it’s only because it made a big enough noise.”
Customer Service: Rightly or wrongly, this whole incident was a black eye for the customer service industry. Everyone has a nightmare story about their efforts to hold a company accountable for their defective products, but in the age of social media, those stories are amplified immeasurably. As Pete Blackshaw has noted, the current customer satisfaction model is obsolete in the age of virality and word-of-mouth exposure. Consumers armed with the tools of social media may not be able to turn a single bad experience into a national controversy, but when enough of them begin to pile up, a brand’s reputation can be sunk. Social media isn’t just a marketing opportunity for brands – it’s a new communication medium that reveals the pulse of consumer sentiment. Accurately gauging that sentiment is half the battle, but reforming customer service practices to head off controversy is even more important. Unless businesses accept and respond to this new reality of the marketplace, their fates will be sealed by the dissatisfaction of their customers.