It's always been a bad idea for consumer companies to get celebrities angry, because celebrities have millions of fans, and can rally those fans to fight. Now, with the Internet and social media, it's easier for people to achieve celebrity and the power to significantly damage companies. That's a lesson that Maytag is learning the hard way, from blogger Heather Armstrong, who writes Dooce.
It's always been a bad idea for consumer companies to get celebrities angry, because celebrities have millions of fans, and can rally those fans to fight. Now, with the Internet and social media, it's easier for people to achieve celebrity and the power to significantly damage companies. That's a lesson that Maytag is learning the hard way, from blogger Heather Armstrong, who writes Dooce.Maytag made the mistake of crossing Heather, a popular blogger who writes humorously about parenting, homemaking, and family. My wife and I have been fans of Heather for several years; I even profiled her for InformationWeek.
How did Heather and Maytag lock horns? Well, the Armstrongs have a newborn daughter, their second. They bought a new top-of-the-line Maytag washing machine, because she knew with a newborn they'd be doing quite a lot of laundry. From the very beginning, the machine was a lemon. On her blog, Heather describes her mounting frustration at trying unsuccessfully to get Maytag to fix her machine.
So I call Maytag. The Maytag. The Mothership. And the agent I get after working through a five-minute maze of PRESS THIS and SAY THIS and PLEASE HOLD is the snootiest customer service person I have ever talked to in my life. And I let her know the entire story, front to back, and that while I'm really upset and sleep deprived, I'm not mad at her because I know it's not her fault. And she keeps saying, yeah, can't really help you, you're going to have to call and have the history faxed over, and then we'll take a look, and even then we'll schedule someone to come take a look, maybe in three to five days?
Why can you not give me a working washing machine in the meantime while you figure out what is wrong with the brand new one that is sitting there broken in my laundry room? Why? I'll take any machine. Any working machine. Give me a machine that works while you figure out why THAT BRAND NEW ONE DOESN'T WORK.
Okay then, I say, almost begging at this point, almost to the point of tears, is there anyone I can talk to who might see what I've been through and understand? And here's where I say, do you know what Twitter is? Because I have over a million followers on Twitter. If I say something about my terrible experience on Twitter do you think someone will help me? And she says in the most condescending tone and hiss ever uttered, "Yes, I know what Twitter is. And no, that will not matter."
That is what she said to me.
So I asked if I could please speak to her supervisor. And I am not even kidding she goes, "Uggh. Fine. Hold, then."
She UGGGH'ed me.
(I've just upset the Cro-Magnons.)
And then I spend the next fifteen minutes giving my story to her supervisor, pleading for someone to fix my washing machine today or at least give me a working machine in the meantime, and he says no, but maybe we'll schedule someone to come take a look, maybe in three to five days?
Okay then. I hang up the phone, calmly walk over to my computer, pull up a browser and write this twitter:
She follows up with several screenshots of her Twitter updates:
"So that you may not have to suffer like we have: DO NOT EVER BUY A MAYTAG. I repeat: OUR MAYTAG EXPERIENCE HAS BEEN A NIGHTMARE."
"Have I mentioned what a nightmare our experience was with Maytag? No? A TOTAL NIGHTMARE."
Within hours, she says, several big-name appliance stores contacted her to fix the problem, and then she heard from Whirlpool, the parent company of Maytag, which dispatched a repairman to fix the washer within a day. And then Bosch Home Appliances offered to give Heather a free washing machine, which she mentioned on Twitter, where one of her followers suggested she donate the machine to a local shelter, which she did.
Like I said at the top of this blog post: To a certain extent, what happened to Maytag is nothing new. Stand-up comedians, talk-show hosts, and other celebrities have been praising and condemning consumer products for decades.
But the Internet and social media make it easier for people achieve the level of celebrity that gives them clout that can damage companies. Heather wasn't famous when she started her blog nearly a decade ago on a consumer blogger service. She was one of hundreds of thousands of young adults in the city blogging in obscurity about their lives. (Another person in a similar situation at about the same time that Heather started her blog: Julie Powell, who felt trapped in a dead-end civil service job and decided to cook every recipe in Julia Child's cookbook, and blog about it.)
Heather's fame is mostly self-made. She got a little boost of celebrity when she was fired from her job for writing nasty things about her employer. But mostly she built her success and fame on the basis of her hard work and talent alone. She didn't need a network or big newspaper or magazine to publish her content to make her famous, she did it herself. Blogging made that possible, and platforms like Twitter and Facebook just make it easier.
And because that kind of fame and influence is easier to achieve, more people have it.
But even so, the overwhelming number of people don't have that level of celebrity, and have to struggle alone against bad customer service. I should know; I'm one of them. In 2002, when I was self-employed, I bought a laptop from Compaq which failed to work from the beginning. I don't have the kind of celebrity that Heather has today--but I was, and am, friends with Cory Doctorow, who blogs at the extremely popular Boing Boing; I wrote up a Web page about my bad experiences with Compaq and convinced Cory to link to it; using that and by calling analysts who had contacts in Compaq, I was able to twist the company's arm and convince them to replace my bum machine.
More recently, in June of this year, I bought a Blue Ant bluetooth stereo headset from a third-party dealer who distributed through Amazon.com. The thing arrived broken, and neither Blue Ant nor the distributor would take responsibility for fixing it without making me pay more money to fix their error. I wrote about my experiences on my personal blog, which gets only a couple of dozen readers a day, just close friends and family (write-ups here and here). As far as I know, nobody from Blue Ant, the distributor who sold me the headset, or Amazon, reads that blog, but even there, the power of social media was able to help me out; a friend said he'd had a similar problem with a product he purchased at Amazon, he suggested I contact Amazon customer service directly. I did, and they credited my account. The friend who gave me that advice lives a couple of thousand miles away, we don't get to see each other very often, and we communicate mostly through Facebook, which is where he saw my blog post.
So we see that social media gives a small number of people, like Heather, the celebrity to publicly embarrass a company that gives them bad service, and a larger number, including me, the tools to connect with each other and get peer support to fix the problem.
What's a company to do? Well, they can keep a database of Internet celebrities like Heather, and Internet-savvy people like me, and make sure those people get on an A-list to get great customer service.
Or they could just put everyone on the A-list, and make sure that everyone gets great customer service. Which do you think would be more effective?
By the way, I can sympathize with Maytag, I've had Heather's sharp wit turned on me. Shortly after I interviewed her for InformationWeek, she wrote this blog post, describing how she found the experience uncomfortable:
A few weeks ago Jon and I gave an interview to an IT magazine for an article about accidental entrepreneurship. They wanted to know how this website now pays our mortgage when I originally started it so that I could make obnoxious fart jokes online. Short answer: I had to give a lot of head.
It was a phone interview, and they recorded it so that they could incorporate it into a podcast (when it's posted I'll link to it here), and I can honestly say that I have never been more uncomfortable giving an interview. One, it was only a couple days after I had discovered that someone I thought was a very cool person was making viciously mean comments about me in a public forum, and every time I answered a question into the phone I could hear in my head how this person would make fun of the way I said things. Two, in order to make sure that they had a clean edit for the podcast, the guy conducting the interview wouldn't say anything for at least 10 seconds after I answered a question, and that disorienting pause made me think that my thrilling discourse had bored him into a coma.
Halfway through the interview I handed the phone over to Jon and pantomimed instructions for him to take over.
That stung. I am certainly willing to make people uncomfortable when the interview situation calls for it. But I'd contacted Heather because I'm a fan of hers, and then I discovered reading her blog that she found talking with me to be literally unbearable. I didn't enjoy that.
On the other hand, she was right. Recording an interview for a podcast while trying to take notes for an article just doesn't work. I never did it again.
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