I watched the @ThatKevinSmith and @SouthwestAir brouhaha erupt live on Twitter but didn’t write about it last week. Bunches of tweeters and bloggers hashing out who was right and wrong based on second, third, or five hundredth-hand information simply wasn’t interesting enough to warrant adding to the noise. Getting ready for a social media presentation tonight though, I’ve been thinking about service defects and service recovery in the world of social networking. I sought an analogy to help think strategically about how a company prepares for an angry customer who wants to be heard and starts tweeting incessantly: handling a hostage situation is very comparable. Rather than a person though, it’s a brand’s reputation being kidnapped by a customer threatening irreparable harm unless demands are met. With the one-to-many communication capabilities of social media, this type of threat has never been more credible. 

Here are five hostage negotiation principles and related implications for preparing to handle when your brand’s good name is being kidnapped:

1. Have a negotiating team ready.

This means more than a single person monitoring Twitter and handling responses. In hostage negotiations, the primary negotiator, who is ideally the sole contact with the hostage taker, is joined by a coach/commander in charge of the situation and personnel along with a secondary negotiator to help monitor, listen, and offer input.

Strategic Questions – Does your company have a pre-identified team and protocols for how it will work together in a social media-based service recovery effort? And how would you incorporate front-line employees when you’re trying to recover from a service failure playing out both at one of your company’s locations and online?

2. Gather as much solid information as possible right away.

Beyond having standard questions to run through, there’s added complexity in a social media-based service recovery effort. Suppose the customer issue IS taking place in-person. With social media monitoring removed from the scene, it may not even be possible from a customer’s messages to determine where the issue is occurring. This creates an interesting implication for enacting rapid service recovery.

Strategic Questions – If it’s clear the issue is taking place in the presence of front line employees, what steps will you take to identify the location and establish communication with them immediately? Since multi-person communication with the angry customer is almost a given, how will you ensure your multiple contacts are speaking with one message?

3. Connect on a personal level.

Social media throws a whole new wrinkle into this, especially when you want to move interaction with the customer to a private messaging stream. If it’s even available, the company may have outdated phone information on the customer, making direct contact challenging to establish. A corporate tweeter may have to try to get a brand kidnapper to “follow” the company so direct messaging can take place. And typically, the corporate tweeter is communicating under a corporate account without a personal avatar. It makes establishing a personal tone of, “I’m here to try and fix the situation,” difficult when the customer is receiving tweets with the corporate logo.

Strategic Questions – Are you following your customers on social media? Do you have multiple ways to reach out to customers? Do your company social media people have work-related, personal accounts they can use to reach out specifically in these cases?

4. Communicate openly and actively listen.

When you have face-to-face contact, listening, and the silence that goes along with it, is easy to convey. It’s a little tougher via phone. But in a medium geared toward short, back-and-forth messages, a pause associated with listening or contemplation comes across as being distracted or ignoring the other person.

Strategic Question – Beyond having plans for migrating service recovery conversations to private channels, are you actively training your social media response team in dealing with the dynamics of these new service recovery situations?

5. Show empathy.

One way hostage negotiators demonstrate empathy is by delivering on aspects of the demands that have been made. Granting small, detailed requests is done in real-life hostage situations to slow and drag them out, which is desirable. In a service recovery situation (especially one playing out in public), the last thing you want to do is extend it.  

Strategic Questions – Who is on your social media service response team? Have you included your best customer service people – the ones with strong understanding of what you can do to solve customer problems and are best at understanding issues from a customer’s point of view?

No matter what your company is doing in social media, you have to address this reality. Even if your company doesn’t want a proactive social media presence, there’s a greater chance every day your customers will be talking about your brand via social media. When they do, and the discussion gets negative and brand threatening, you better have thought about your strategy, with a plan for what you’ll do. Mike Brown

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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12 Responses to “Brand Kidnappings and Social Networking – 5 Ways to Prepare”

  1. roy morejon says:

    One of the first things companies need to do is acquire all of their brand names through services like Knowem (http://bit.ly/iknowem) and Cliamio (http://bit.ly/claimio).

  2. Mike Brown says:

    Great point Roy – locking up your brand assets is fundamental even for companies that aren’t actively using them at this point.

  3. Tom Messett says:

    Hi Mike, interesting post however I have something to add: In the Southwest Air incident they largely did not have a hope, Kevin Smith was so irate that he was going to go at them no matter what they did, they attempted to reach out to him to solve the issue and that seemed to only make things worse, that leads me to 2 conclusions:

    1) If your brand screws up offline then it is going to get screwed online! Prevention is better than a cure and in a lot of these incidents an improved offline service channel or more sensitive handling by staff on the ground.

    2) sometimes it is actually best not to respond. If a consumer is being unreasonable or refusing to engage in sensible dialouge it is sometimes better to leave them. This works well if you have spent time in the social web developing your advocates and your own community, by doing this unreasonable individuals will often be tackled by other members of the community.

    There is also a good moral point that Kevin Smith makes, everyone should recieve good service, he shouldn’t get special treatment from a brand because, as he puts it: “I have a platform”.

    • Mike Brown says:

      Tom – Thanks for the in-depth response. A couple of thoughts:

      First off, you’re absolutely right about solid front line customer service keeping a brand out of these predicaments. Still that doesn’t always happen, and that’s where incredible service recovery has to kick in.

      I tried to stay away from hashing through too much of the Kevin Smith – Southwest situation directly, but listening to the smodcast and reading the tweets and responses, it was clear Kevin Smith was made to wait around for a while before getting attention on site, thus time to get started tweeting. That led to my comments about how the person monitoring social media has to get with onsite people right away. If someone is being actively helped, there’s less idle time and ideally less inclination for scalding tweets.

      The idea of not responding is tricky. I’d tend toward some type of engagement, but appropriate to each situation.

  4. Terrifc topic Mike! Social media has made customer terrorism / customer activism a universally accessible recourse tool.

    Still, the fundamentals of how to deal with extreme complaints apply.

    The most critical moments in dealing with a prospective customer terrorist / activist happen at the moment of dissappointment. In this case, like others, the first encounter sets the stage for what the disgruntled customer will do next. For the Kevin Smith episode, this would have been from the time that he was informed he would not be flying. We can advance any number of positive ideas as to what that appropriate response could have included, but the fact is that if it occured early enough, the likelihood of customer activism is reduced or eliminated in most cases.

    A response tactic not mentioned would be to provide an activist response to a customer activist.

    I think this may be an especially strong response in a social media world, as it takes a high profile incident (such as a row between Kevin Smith and Southwest) and provides an equally high profile response, potentially leading to more positive press than the initial negative.

    This case, for example, could have involved a very publicized visit, with Southwest CEO Gary Kelly flying to New Jersey to deliver service recovery in person to Kevin Smith. What the service recovery actually entailed would be less important (though it could be creative and fitting with the overall brands of Kevin Smith & Southwest) than the fact that an extreme case of customer dissatisfaction from a high-profile customer would be met with an equally extreme recovery effort.

    While the cost of recovery would be disproportionate to the incident (unless you’re measuring the word-of-mouth / word-of-tweet impact) cases of extreme customer reaction are rare enough that addressing them with extreme response may be the least cost (and most beneficial) method.

  5. Mike Brown says:

    Interesting idea Chris about the extreme response. Given the Southwest Airlines focus on conformity to procedures, I wonder whether extreme response is something they’d even consider. Certainly, they could have fulfilled the private jet request on Kevin Smith’s part, but they’d probably be much more concerned with setting a new precedent. In that regard, maybe something big and brand consistent after the face would be the way to go.

    In the class the other night, someone asked whether anyone would do a survey to determine brand perceptions of Southwest after this incident to see what the impact was. My guess is that within a few months, there’s little memory of it other than in die-hard social media circles. We’ll see though….


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