Suggestion Box? What Suggestion Box?

09/15/2011 02:54 pm ET | Updated Nov 15, 2011

How Social Media Did Away With It and Put the Customer in Charge of Your Brand

Businesses used to have a small suggestion box near the door that mostly housed dust bunnies and an occasional piece of gum. Rarely would someone get back to you. But people can now make a post from an iPhone or a BlackBerry while they're sitting in your restaurant.
-- Charles Nelson, President of Sprinkles Cupcakes

Charles Nelson is absolutely correct. 

Before social media existed, a customer (or an employee) would fill out a suggestion form and drop it into a dusty box. But this "drop" of a complaint or suggestion would too often fall into a black hole, almost never to be seen again. It was like the rabbit hole that Alice fell into when she entered Wonderland.

Complaints or suggestions can cover a range of topics, from poor treatment by a cashier, to prices that are too high, to a request that a retailer carry a specific brand of ice cream. But the days of dropping these kinds of comments into a box are long gone. Now, someone can go right on Facebook or Twitter and be in charge of a company's brand. They can make or break how people perceive a company in a very short period of time.

Take, for example, a mother who is an "extreme couponer." She goes into a major retail chain and is halted at the register, where she's confronted by a manager who tells her she cannot use so many coupons. The woman leaves the store in a fit of rage over not being allowed to redeem coupons that she's rightly entitled to use, not being able to save money on groceries for her family, not being able to budget wisely. She pulls out her smartphone, opens her Twitter app, and in 140 characters goes on a mission to let everyone know that she was wronged. (Talk about the ultimate suggestion box!) She uses the "@" symbol of the retailer's Twitter username, and types a "#" symbol to connect to a trend called "#horribleretailers," "#badcustomerservice," or "#boycott[retailer's name]." 

This is a public relations nightmare for any company. What if someone from the media sees that tweet and runs a story? What if other shoppers see that tweet and boycott the retail chain? Customers hold more power than businesses give them credit for. Besides -- aren't customers the ones that keep them in business? While a publicly traded company has investors, its biggest investors are its customers, and if they are gone, the company is doomed... It's pretty much headed for that same black hole that swallowed the paper suggestion form.

Even with all of my years in public relations (and I wrote the book on it -- literally! -- Public Relations for Dummies), I'm astounded by the sheer force and power of social media. This type of PR crisis that results from a company treating a customer so poorly is not easy to contain (although I am always up for a challenge). For every wronged extreme couponer who tweets, there are hundreds of other budget-conscious mothers (and mommy bloggers are a force to be reckoned with) who will be writing about this. 

So what does this mean for businesses? Do they go into panic mode and offer this woman a year's worth of free groceries? That certainly would be nice and might change her mind about how they made her feel when they embarrassed her in front of several other customers at the store. But what about everyone else? The answer is a hard pill to swallow for businesses...

Customers are in charge of businesses' brands, whether businesses like it or not. It's an uphill battle to deny customers their right to a forum to express their grievances, so get ready for the ride, guys. We have yet to hit the tip of the iceberg on this one. Something tells me that many businesses not only undervalue their customers, but undervalue the power of social media -- when it actually becomes social. 

Perhaps more businesses should have responded to the suggestion form in the box. After all, Alice learned something from her adventure. Shouldn't you?

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