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Handling Online Customer Feedback

Alysa Zeltzer, Attorney, Kelley Drye Collier Shannon
John Villafranco, Partner, Kelley Drye Collier Shannon

Every company should be concerned about what consumers are thinking, especially because consumer complaints are the best predictor of regulatory action and lawsuits. In addition, you certainly should be concerned about what consumers are thinking when planning your company’s online marketing strategies.

A New Era of Communication

The Internet allows consumers to communicate at a volume and speed never before possible—a single consumer complaint can quickly multiply into hundreds. Companies must be aware of online channels of communication.

For example, there are hundreds of Web sites in which people rate restaurants, apartment buildings, and hotels. There is a pretty good chance that a family is going to check out a site like TripAdvisor before booking a hotel for a week in Walt Disney World. If your hotel has negative comment after negative comment, you are going to book another hotel.

Also, a fairly new phenomenon, people can make and post any video they want on sites like YouTube. These videos are accessible to its thousands of members who sign up for free, and the videos are searchable by key word. Currently, this site has hundreds of thousands of videos—anything from homemade concerts to funny sports clips to news broadcasts.

In June 2006, someone who had a cable company employee install cable posted a video he took of the employee taking a nap in his chair during the visit. In less than a week, more than 300,000 people had viewed the video from YouTube.com. How many of this cable company's 21 million customers did this reach?

VH1 even has a show, Web Junk 2.0, that recaps the funniest or most newsworthy clips that have been on the Internet and/or e-mailed around. So even if you’re not online looking at video clips, chances are you’re going to see it on VH1 or other pop culture stations and/or TV talk shows.

What Can You Do if You Are Criticized Online?

By the time a complaint is publicized online, it’s obviously too late to correct the problem before people find out. But there are three simple steps you can take to alleviate some of the damage:

  • Understand the nature of complaints.
  • Take steps to resolve an issue as soon as possible.
  • Make sure the public knows the company is aware of the problem and is addressing it. It is key to address the problem at its source and prevent the issue from becoming any more public than it already is.

Many companies now have accepted that consumers post online and are using this practice to their advantage. Often in place of (or in addition to) advertising focus groups, companies are periodically reviewing what consumers are saying about them online (positive or negative) in chat rooms, blogs, social networking sites, and Web sites and are responding with action.

Periodically reviewing these sources can provide helpful insights about certain business practices and allow companies to address such issues before they turn into larger problems that attract a regulator’s or a plaintiff’s attorney’s attention. It is also an opportunity to hear about complaints regarding competitors’ practices and to take steps to avoid the same issues.

Should You Care What Anonymous Postings Say?

Anonymous postings often carry less weight in terms of believability and reduce the likelihood of a successful libel suit. That does not mean, however, that anonymous postings should be disregarded. If the anonymous online claim about a company is true, then the company should address and correct the issue. If it is false, the company should defend itself and provide supporting facts. As for a libel suit, there has to be a real threat to your business before you consider filing a suit.

Should Bloggers and Podcasters Have the Right to Remain Anonymous?

It depends on the medium. In the online world, there are substantial privacy and safety concerns that make real-name registration unworkable for people hosting their own blog or podcast sites. There’s also little need for it. It doesn’t matter, for example, who is posting a complaint in their blog about a company’s product or service. Instead, companies need to determine if the complaint is credible by looking at the weight of the complaint—meaning how serious the complaint is.

Also, are the same repeated issues and complaints being raised in chat rooms and in other online spaces? Are the issues starting to pop up in other areas (e.g., print media, television)?

Last, consumers who can communicate anonymously are likely to discuss their issues more freely and openly than others. This should be viewed as an advantage, as it enables companies to spot and rectify issues that would not be readily identified elsewhere or, in a worst case scenario, not identified until a regulator alerted the company to the issue. As long as companies are aware of online communications and view them as a resource, everyone can benefit. And your company’s marketing strategy, hopefully leading to more sales, benefits as well.

© 2006 John Villafranco and Alysa Zeltzer. All rights reserved.

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