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During the 10 years that it took to develop our program, we’ve operated using absolute transparency. During our infancy stages, we learned that the outdated mantra “the customer is always right” has been challenged in recent years — and with good reason.

Unfair customers scream at airline, hospitality, and event personnel routinely. Customers will react to issues with strong emotion, or even create a problem to then demand compensation for it. Adults in both the corporate and entrepreneurial world have run-ins with mistreatment, harassment, and intimidation every day.  In a challenging economy, emotions during all kinds of business transactions can run high. Some customers cannot afford what they desperately want, or get to where they desperately need to be, quickly enough.  And because they are dealing with a “business” they see it as an “entity” –not the reality that a business IS people, and those people and the brand that supports them can be hurt by bullying.  Bullying a business today can also include passive aggressive postings from competitors on blogs or walls, negative comments on review sites or from customers who perform social bullying when they don’t get what they want and start tweeting to complain instead of calling customer service to fix the problem privately.

The beauty of social media is that transparency and authenticity are expected and valued.   You cannot hide easily in the age of the Internet. No longer are brands the only ones who have a pulpit to spread a message. Now, everyone from non-profits to small businesses to individuals have the  same opportunities to say something and have that message spread far and wide. This means that businesses have to meet a higher standard of service and transparency to thrive in a world where “word of mouth” has shifted from the small circle of face to face interactions to much larger networks where that “word” is spread to multitudes in mere minutes.

When you have an economic environment that forces both consumers and businesses to do more with less, it is inevitable that there will be friction between businesses, employees, and their customers.  Social Media gives consumers a powerful voice to ensure their money is spent on what they expect, and that they are getting what they pay for.  Yet, as much as this is the positive side of social media’s democratization of the web, it also allows anyone with a social account and an axe to grind to wield that axe more powerfully.  And a small business or Non Profit can be devastated by even one bully customer with a large network of “friends” who will share their message without checking the facts.

Often, they’ll use the argument, “But it’s free speech, I can say what I want.” And, to a degree, that’s true. Yet it’s also not quite as simple as that. Hiding behind free speech won’t stop you from being sued for your opinion; nor will it protect you in court under journalism rules. That kind of free speech is meant for an open exchange of opinions and counter-opinions. It’s when that free speech moves from strong opinion into hate, vitriol and bullying that the bigger problem arises. And it’s a problem that seems to be escalating.  The worst part is that some campaigns go “viral” where the bully is supported and applauded under the guise of being “the mistreated customer.”

Of course, everyone tends to forget about the victim –in this case the company or Non Profit, and their employees who work hard and depend on that business for their livelihood.  To be sure, there are businesses that may try and take advantage of customers –but in the world of social media and business feedback, the motto seems to be “shoot first and ask questions later.”

So, as a consumer, how do you really make good informed decisions? And how should you handle issues that arise with a company you feel has not met their obligations? How do we really use the internet and social media to make today’s market place a winning combination for consumers AND good business?  How do you protect yourself as a consumer without becoming a bully customer?  Here are some quick ways to identify good businesses, spot bad ones, and deal with issues after the transaction.

1) Do your research, but look for balanced sources.  There are consumer review and complaint sites all over the internet.  The same bully customer can post the same negative comment or issue on multiple sites, give it a different title and make it seem as though a business has a number of complaints.  Doing balanced research means looking at the nature of the complaint, not just how many you see.  Also, look for proven review sites like the Better Business Bureau or Consumer Reports.  Organizations with a long history of reviewing businesses and complaints understand the delicate balance.  It’s easy to post a negative business review on online, but not so easy in situations where a complaint is researched from both sides before it is made public.

2) Understand the communication flow. Is the business contactable in a reasonable time frame? Nothing is more frustrating than not knowing what to do when you have an issue.  Before you make a purchase with a new company, review their website, and call them.  Make sure that you know you can speak with someone if you have questions or need assistance as a customer.  If email is the only option, that may be ok, but the business should be clear about expected response times, and what happens after you send the email.

3)  Read the Fine Print on the Website. Understand what you are getting, and what the company policy may be on returns, cancellations or terminations of service.  If the transactions is a bit less formal, make sure there are clear expectations between you and the business.  Outline your expectations, and understand what the seller will agree to in return.

4) Always understand your part in the process.  Depending on where you are and how you are transacting, there is a responsibility for both consumers and businesses.  Many times, using the internet to transact can create a false sense of expected turn around time, both for customers and businesses.  Always give time for a response, and if your issue is time sensitive, make sure you include that in your communication, but be realistic too.  Nothing is more frustrating for a business owner that wants to provide great service to find out that there was a problem, but not be given enough time to work out a satisfactory solution.  Notify the business as soon as you know the problem exists, and understand that it can take time for a business to fix the problem.

5) Use the right channels.  Many business owners are learning how to use Social Media with their business as a way to interact with their customers and provide information.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that social media is also that business’ way of accepting and resolving complaints.  Nothing is more painful than reading a customer complaint or bad review shouted to the public without having a chance to make it right.  Business are comprised of people, not machines, and mistakes will happen.  Deal directly with the business over the phone, in person, or in a direct email to make them aware of the problem, and give them an opportunity to make it right.  Social Media should be a last ditch resort rather than your first line of communication.

6) Expect reasonable resolutions, not emotional ones. Often times, when we are frustrated with a business over an issue, that emotional frustration can lead us to want more than we should.  On the flip side, businesses should also understand and evaluate how to best provide resolution, and leave a positive lasting impression.  Many businesses will sooth over complaints with freebies or deep discounts, but that can create a culture of expectation among customers.  Before demanding compensation as a customer, evaluate the situation without your emotions.  For example, let’s say you order a $500 cookware set, but when you receive it, you notice the small frying pan is scratched.  Probably, you were really looking forward to getting your cookware.  You paid a lot of money for it.  Now it’s here and it’s not perfect.  Do you deserve the WHOLE cookware set for FREE because one piece was damaged? Or is it reasonable for the company to replace that one damaged piece for you?  Companies want to offer fair resolutions for customers when there is a mistake, but they don’t want to impact their entire budget overcompensating for an unintentional mistake.

Like Writing for the Soul Workshop™, most NPO’s, business owners, and employees WANT to deliver great customer service.  All of us are consumers, too.  We have the same expectations of great customer service when we patron another business, and we want to serve our customer’s the right way.  Before you become a bully customer, look at the situation, be fair about what you expect, and work WITH the business so that everyone wins. Just as the customer may not always be right, the business is not always right either. Transparency is the key to not only getting what you need and want, but in making fair decisions on all ends.  If you or someone you know, ever has an issue with us, please don’t hesitate to the Contact Form above or call us direct at: (682) 235-8446.

-Eric, Creator of Writing for the Soul Workshop™ and CEO of TGIM Digital Publishing.

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