The Power of Viral Media: Angry Customers Armed With New Weapons
I want to begin this post by saying the intent of the story I'm about to share with you is not to assign blame or speculate on who may have done what wrong. The point is all of the rules have changed when it comes to word-of-mouth marketing, for good and bad. Anyone who manages, owns or otherwise operates a business—including self-storage—will have to take heed and create a plan for mitigating PR calamities.
A week ago Monday, I arrived at work to find several e-mails from a self-storage customer who believed he had been done wrong by a self-storage facility in Hollywood. He had not only sent his messages to several of us here at Inside Self-Storage, he had copied members of the Self-Storage Association and other industry companies of import. His e-mails included details of his predicament and a link to a YouTube video, a roughly 10-minute film shot during a protest he staged outside the facility in question.
I will not present all of the minute details of the case here. Suffice it to say that, however it happened, the tenant moved his belongings into a unit other than the one listed on his rental agreement. When the manager eventually discovered the goods, he believed them to be abandoned, and ultimately disposed of them. (By "dispose," I understand the goods were tossed or doled out to whomever might want them. They did not go to lien sale.)
One day, the customer visited his unit to find it empty. When he went into the management office to inquire about what happened, he found the manager sitting on a stool he had been storing. His conclusion? That the facility employees had "stolen" his goods. After some discussion, the manager explained the misunderstanding as a clerical error. The customer demanded compensation. The situation had to be resolved through the corporate office, which took a bit of time. The customer, impatient to be satisfied, launched a full-scale PR attack upon the business.
First, Greg (customer) told all of his friends, family, co-workers, etc., about the wrong he believed had been done to him. He got everybody fired up. He created a Yahoo! e-mail address through which to send information relating to his plight: [facility name]email@example.com. This was the address from which I and my industry collegues received Greg's messages.
Greg organized a full-scale protest on Sunset Boulevard, just outside the facility, with a large crowd chanting and brandishing brightly colored signs. There's a lot of traffic on Sunset, as you can imagine, and drivers by joined in the ruckus by beeping their horns. Greg filmed said protest and posted the video on YouTube.
Someone who drove by the demonstration Twittered about it: "Just passed a demonstration on Sunset Blvd. 30 or so people holding signs "XXXXXXX Steals" This sure puts the WTF? in #selfstorage."
I hear ya, brother: Sure puts the WTF in self-storage, indeed.
From a journalist's perspective, I immediately saw several stories emerging out of this string of events. I was interested in uncovering the truth behind what happened, of course; but the truth, in the end, is irrelevant. Here is the fact: Perception is reality. And regardless of who was at fault for which outcome, Greg managed to do damage to the storage business in question, which I have not named because it could have happened to any storage facility. It could happen to yours.
I e-mailed with the customer and got his side of the story. I also spoke and e-mailed with the president of the self-storage operation and got his perspective. He and I agreed that once the situation was resolved, there were lessons in the story that should be shared with the industry at large. I urge you to watch the ISS website and future issues of the magazine for an article about:
- The power of viral media and how it can affect your self-storage business
- How to handle angry customers and avoid a PR disaster
- How to mitigate a PR nightmare once it ensues
- Key strategies for minimizing situations that create angry customers in the first place
Happily, the storage operator in our tale was able to settle with Greg for an undisclosed sum. Greg agreed to sign a confidentiality agreement, cancel the second protest he had scheduled for April 3rd, and remove the YouTube video. He e-mailed me say he could no longer communicate on this subject.
Most of you have dealt with angry customers; maybe you even have a situation on your hands right now. In the past, you had to worry about negative word-of-mouth, a call to a local newspaper or radio show, an angry editorial ... These things are dangerous but contained to a specific community. They can be calamitous to a storage business, to be sure—I do not belittle the importance of that, especially if you are a small operation with only local facilities.
But imagine a message that can be sent around the globe almost instantly, the sheer power created by newly established social media such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. One customer gets upset with you in Anywhere USA, and suddenly your name is besmirched on Web pages and in the minds of customers all over the world.
Am I exaggerating? Perhaps a bit. Then again, maybe I'm not being dramatic enough. What do you think? Social media can work for us, but it can certainly work against us. Customer service has never been so critical. If you have an experience or comment to share, post it here. I'll also start a thread over at Self-Storage Talk.
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