Businesses Should Fight Back Against Online Attacks

Social media and online reviews bring an incredible new level of accountability to the customer service equation. The internet enables consumers to reach out to companies and service providers in brand new ways, and I believe the transparency that exists because of these online tools is a great thing for commerce. However, there’s a difference between feedback and online attacks.

Companies that fail to deliver on their product and brand promises are quickly weeded out, and frankly, it’s keeping many business owners on their toes. However, sometimes these powerful tools are misused, and it’s important for both individuals and businesses to understand that one should not go on social media and bash a company without considering the consequences. A couple cases have been publicized recently.

Conservative commentator Ann Coulter caught considerable heat recently for her online tantrum about Delta Airlines. If you haven’t heard the story, Coulter had her seat assignment changed and got very upset.  I guess sitting by the window or aisle or whatever is extremely important to her.  She felt wronged by Delta, yet before the airline could even make an apology to her, she started tweeting and tweeting and tweeting her disgust.  She wanted to really hurt the airline; instead, she ended up just making herself look petty and foolish.

Here’s the thing, we all make mistakes. In the grand scheme of life, Coulter’s seat change is a pretty minor thing, and most of us understand that businesses make mistakes. But Coulter went bonkers, and her acrimonious online attack didn’t fit the crime.  Delta, thankfully, did not roll over for her. The airline apologized for the mistake, gave her a refund for the change fee and then did something that I thought was really important. They scolded her.

They let her know that they weren’t going to be bullied and that her treatment of not only Delta employees, but the airline’s other customers, was inappropriate. I truly applaud how Delta handled this, and this is coming from a guy who a few months ago had nary a good word to say about this airline.  Delta left me unceremoniously stranded in New York City back in April — but that was a topic of a prior blog post.

Also recently, a jury in Texas awarded a million dollars to a wedding photographer whose reputation was destroyed by an uppity couple. Andrea Polito, a well-regarded photographer in Dallas, was hired by Andrew and Neely Moldovan. Even though Mrs. Moldovan failed to review and understand her contract, she lashed out at Polito on social media.

The long and short of the story is that the bride took her time picking her wedding photographs and either forgot or failed to read her contract, which stated she would owe an additional $125 for the cover of her wedding album. Moldovan and her husband went nuts on social media, called local TV stations and openly disparaged Polito with what appeared to be the goal of destroying her business.

It worked.  Polito, who was normally booked every weekend and typically months in advance, only shot two weddings in the year following the Moldovan blow up.

Polito sued the Moldovans for defamation, and a jury recently awarded her one million big ones.

This is the new reality. We can ask for and even demand great customer service, but we can’t be defamatory, and we can’t be jerks about it. Businesses have rights on social media too. We don’t have to live in fear of negative reviews, authored by unrealistic customers.

Here’s an example, which I cited in my book How to Protect (Or Destroy) Your Reputation Online.

A bar owner in New York City responded to the author of a one-star rating published on Yelp about his establishment, the Iron Horse.  The reviewer said the bar was not a good place for a quiet drink and then posted the one-star rating.  Owner Zbigniew Szymczyk thanked her for her visit, but then gave her a “review” of his own.

He blasted the reviewer, his displeased customer, for not aligning her expectations with the place she was patronizing.  The Iron Horse bills itself as a loud “dive” bar that sells $2 beers, despite its premium location.

“We are primarily a loud, party type bar atmosphere, serving a mean burger, hot wings, and similar pub fare at RIDICULOUSLY low prices for Lower Manhattan,” Szymczyk wrote on Yelp.

He concluded: “I give you 1 star as you are terrible at finding bars and restaurants that suit your tastes. I’ll give you more stars if you come back and have a drink with me.”

Szymczyk’s Yelp response was noticed by Eater.com and quickly went viral, appearing on many other websites and news outlets including The New York Post, The Daily Mail in the United Kingdom and Mashable.com.

When Szymczyk stood up for himself, he ended up getting more good publicity out of the deal. He handled it well, in my opinion.

It’s critical for business owners to pay attention to online reviews and all manners of online chatter. In many cases, negative feedback can be addressed and even turned around. Engagement is critical, but as business owners, we don’t have to sit back and take online abuse. We want your business, but we’re not going to be hung out to dry if we make a little mistake, particularly if it’s a mistake we try to correct or if we are wrongfully accused of an error.

There’s more on this topic in my book, and if you are interested in learning more about social media policies, online review strategies, etc., you can always reach out to me.

–John

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