business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

The Internet is capable of great moments and, sadly, far less. Just as a Twitter fueled rebellion in Iran catches our admiration, there are moments when the limitations are almost too much to bear. For instance, my mother (as wise a woman as I have ever met) has a bad habit of passing on e-mail pronouncements on all types of health issues to our entire family. And 90 percent of the time I have to respond - very politely - that once again mom has passed on a widely debunked myth.

It gets worse. My wife’s 87-year-old aunt has somehow taken to using Facebook. (Take that, teenagers!) Sadly, it doesn’t always work out well. For instance, we have no idea what she thinks LOL means, but it’s certainly not “laugh out loud.” (A recent note from this aunt: “sorry to hear that he needs surgery…LOL.” We’re hoping she means lots of love, but who knows.)

For business, appropriate use of these new technologies is even more critical. Myths, legends, lies and more can float unfettered on the Internet for days, completely slipping by unnoticed unless companies actively seek them. But the picture is also two-sided. An aggrieved shopper now has an incredible device to strike back when customer service and more fails to satisfy.

Luckily there are great examples, both good and bad, for companies to consider.

The bad comes from the easiest industry to mock: the airlines. Recently, a singing group from Canada headed out to the US Midwest to play a concert on United Airlines. While sitting in their plane, the band members noticed a problem: on the tarmac the baggage handlers were playing a version of football with guitar cases. You can figure out where the story goes.

When the band reached its destination the lead singer, Dave Carroll, wasn’t surprised to find his guitar was broken. He appealed to United for help, but received none. So in protest he wrote a music video: “United Breaks Guitars.” It’s a really well done video and one you can watch right now on Nearly 4.5 million people have already watched it and, not surprisingly, United has suddenly become helpful to Dave.

It’s a painful lesson that the consumer no longer has to tolerate poor service and has a powerful weapon to fight back.

But the Internet also can be our friend. In a very different example, consider the convenience store chain Wawa, which is currently in the middle of its Hogiefest promotion. Now Wawa does an outstanding job with its sandwich program and any retailer who believes kiosks don’t work needs to visit Wawa (or competitors Sheetz and Rutters) to see how well kiosks can perform.

The story isn’t the kiosk though. During Hogiefest, Wawa invites customers to submit videos about their favorite sandwiches for a chance to win free sandwiches for a year and a role in commercial. Visit the company’s website to get a sense of what this contest produces, but the odds are very strong that “I love Wawa” (the second place original song) was much better received in corporate headquarters than “United Breaks Guitars.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the new world. It’s about people communicating like never before; fact and fiction, anger and praise. In truth, there is only so much we can do about the anger, although the United video gives us a powerful reminder to pass throughout our companies that the tolerance for poor service is lower than ever. (Keep in mind that United was wrong in how it handled the luggage and dealt with the customer complaint – it deserved everything it got.)

Then again, there is so much we can do along the lines of what Wawa is trying, opening up a new way to delighting, engaging and talking with our customers. There is so much we can do by finding ways to use YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to communicate to shoppers and associates and to help them communicate back.

When you consider the two paths, this pro-active one seems like the easiest choice ever. LOL…right?

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
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