Consumers vs. Social Media - What and when to rant on Facebook, Twitter, TripAdvisor, LinkedIn!
By L. Aruna Dhir, A Hospitality & Feature Writer and Columnist
I think in the ever-evolving, overly technocratic yet exceedingly humanized world, the best thing that happened to us was, undoubtedly, the birth of Internet in the early 90s. It shrunk the world, blurred the boundaries and brought everything closer home.
I have two visions when I think of Social Media vis-à-vis us. In the hands of wise common folk, thought leaders, opinion makers, influencers it is all good and hopefully sane. However, when we hit the realm of the unwise and not so prudent, mature and stable, I feel the beatific and wondrous social media in our hands is like a big bunch of bananas in the hands of a monkey - too much of a good thing that will do terrible things to our tummy.
The other vision I increasingly get, seeing all the temper, rage, tantrum, ego, power play flash across the various forums, is that of a monkey with a wrench. If the monkey is trained and composed, he will get some good work done. If not, then he will simply play dangerously with the wrench chucking it high up in the air, catching it sometimes but mostly having it land perilously on his crown to much pain and discomfort.
And that pretty much surmises how a lot of us mishandle social media. Of particular concern is our mismanagement of this wonderful tool in relation to our equation with brands and the purveyors of those brands.
I hail from the hospitality industry - an industry that is of the people, by the people and for the people like no other. With the emergence of platforms such as TripAdvisor, the guests - as consumers are traditionally called - are taking to the medium with a vengeance.
A Facebook friend, Sanjay Austa runs a lovely resorty cottage called Meena Bagh in Shimla, which he lovingly built brick by brick and opened a year and a half back. It is a rather beautiful place that transports you to the La La Land. Recently, a Delhi family of nine, together with their ill-mannered and badly behaved brood stayed at the Cottage, running amuck and trashing the place in unimaginably deplorable ways.
They even decided to walk away with some knick-knacks and ornamental items from the Cottage. Now, I am no stranger to such guest behaviour. Once while with The Imperial, we were regaled about an East European guest who stuffed his suitcases with bespoke, expensive cut glass and crystal vases and bowls from his suite on his departure.
The Housekeeping obviously found out, tip-toed around the issue, alarmed the Duty Manager who alerted and enlisted support of the Senior Management at hand. The guest was confronted as courteously as possible given the situation, and requested to check out without decamping with the loot. The guest, who had been caught red-handed, in turn mumbled something incoherent to escape the embarrassing event and beat a hasty retreat. Social media had not quite set in then.
Going back to the Meena Bagh story, when confronted, the "leading" lady kept dangling the INR 45000 price tag attached to their two-night stay for everything - from stealing stuff from the property to intimidating the caretaker and other gentle hill staff to damaging the place that has been carefully maintained.
Because an exposé of sorts had happened on ground (and the staff had enough proof to support their complaint and claim), the lady of the pack felt humiliated and disrespected and initially refused to pay up. Upon insistence from the Manager, the bills were settled but the lady found her ego so badly bruised that she decided to take out her ire on social media. She wrote a scathing review on that holy grail-ish review aggregator TripAdvisor!
The Owner of the cottage felt that he and his hill home had been wronged and decided to call out the guest and her false review. Austa steeled himself up, given that he is in the business of hospitality, but responded to the review point by point describing in detail just how rapaciously his cottage had been ruined, also letting the guest know that pictures had been taken to chronicle exactly what they had done. And he countered, with wit and a sense of repartee, on the same public platform leaving no scope for conjecture and shady comebacks.
I spoke to Sanjay about dealing with such guests from hell and about the role of Social Media in this. To the first he said he was saddened to see that some guests were using social media as a terror tactic. 'If you do not let us be or if you do not offer us a discount or if you do not meet our unrealistic demand, then we will give you a bad rating or write an unfavourable review,' seems to be the threat loomed out. Thankfully brands and brand owners are wisening up to this and ill-intentioned customers will not be able to engage in this dirty trick, for long.
The other laudable thing that came out in this incident was that TripAdvisor weighed both sides of the story and decided to bring down the negative review since it lacked authenticity and only stemmed out of a personal grouse.
THE MEENA BAGH, SHIMLA CASE STUDY
Because we can easily air our opinions on Social Media, because we can approach just that right person sitting in the headquarters without much effort unlike earlier times, because we can shoot and upload videos and photos to be viewed by the world at large, because we get our fragile egos easily battered and can set out with so much ease to seek revenge using Twitter or TripAdvisor or Zomato to ruin painstakingly built reputations, we, as customers, are losing a sense of fairness and balance. Remember that monkey with the wrench! Many times he gets it right and employs the wrench effectively but several other times, he ends up either hurting others or getting a bump on his own head.
No brand worth its salt and backing of a strong brand reputation built on customer trust and gained over years of existence will want to destroy it by offering bad products and shoddy service. Yes glitches happen. Sometimes more than what should be permissible. Yet no brand - be it a can of Cola, or a shoe maker or a safety pin company, a hotel, a swish eating out place, heck even a local Dhaba, a pharma firm, Country's leading Atta maker, a Toilet Roll manufacturer or any other product manufacturer or service provider - will want to dish out faulty products and poor service.
For companies it means a double loss - first in manufacturing or in service delivery, then in the ad spends and marketing budgets - if they get the main crux wrong and platter out the wrong deal to the customer.
With Social Media becoming the new age Consumer Courts, but much more efficient and timely and consumer centric than what the CC's ever were, the brands hang by a thin thread lest they be crucified on YouTube or roasted on Twitter.
Sometimes issues get kicked up into a huge storm and attract a large number of eyeballs and reactions. Remember the case of Mr. Katyal vs. Indigo Airlines that happened towards the end of last year?
The flyer felt affronted upon being corrected by a lowly staff member, put others and his own self in jeopardy by being careless on the tarmac, slapped and shoved the Airline staff only to get pinned down by the ill trained handlers, told them to FO and then went on to divide the society along the class lines.
We all sat on judgment in our Social Media gravatars, pronouncing punishments, seeking for heads to roll, tsk-tsking about what the world had come to be. Some of us, in class affinity with Katyal, felt we could be next to face such rowdy ruthless treatment by an Airline, despite no fault of ours. After all, we from certain strata of society have the privilege of throwing an expletive on those below us or treating them as s*** and getting away with our ways because you know, as the saying goes in Delhi and large parts of North India, "Do you know who I am?"
Only a really tiny percentage of sensible, educated people who couldn't care less about TRPs and a populist vote spoke about how wrong Katyal was in standing close to a Plane's wing and in throwing a tantrum on the tarmac - something that could have brought in grave tragedy which is what the unfortunately boorish staff was more maniacal about, to begin with.
Eventually, after the identified slacker and instigator from the Airline staff was terminated and the Indigo honcho gave an apology, the dust settled over our Social media universe and peace returned to our personal worlds till the time we were ready for the next virtual battle.
Another Hotel friend tells me how guests threaten to write a bad review on Social Media to wangle a discount or an additional service or even a complimentary stay. There are Zomato stories of low ratings to get a free pizza or a meal comped off. Earlier the customer was considered king, but with the opportunity of being seen and heard on social media he is threatening to be the Emperor Royal, demanding his word to be the last.
Having said that, Social media and its role in offering redressal is a boon in cases of App-based businesses that run on and through social media. Hotel and restaurant booking sites, transportation companies like Ola and Uber come to mind.
Still, success is not easy to beget. The resident enfant terrible cum niece uses the two cab services for her daily commute to work and comes back with strangely harrowing tales of how unresponsive, careless and untrained the Ola or Uber support hubs or Twitter handle managers or backhand Navigating teams are. They will stubbornly not respond to even genuine complaints, if they do come back then it is with the standard, silly, scripted response that may have no bearing to the complaint and when they do offer a quick fix, it is so ludicrously paltry and inconsequentially unapologetic that it puts off the customer even more.
But given all the parameters, Social media is still one hell of a great tool to draw attention to issues and causes and get solution for them. Swapan Seth, an owner of an Advertising Agency was exasperated with Urban Ladder - the online Furniture company. He unsubscribed himself unsuccessfully about 17 times from their mailing list but the plight of spamming continued. He then took to Twitter to send an acerbic message, in English and in Swahili to drive the sarcasm home, asking them to get their act together. He got a response almost immediately promising him action.
In another case, a friend has sought out help with Hitachi's poor service and mashed up job, by putting up her grievance on Facebook. Help in terms of advice, contact names and numbers are pouring in from real and virtual pals.
A journalist friend opined that with consumers running to the Social media to complain in a free-wheeling manner - both in the right and wrong instances - it would cause a lot of public-shaming for the brands. Professional Outfits such as ReviewPro are offering tutorials to companies on how to handle negative reviews and productively manage their online ratings and reputation. And rightly so!
Yet, in a laughably landmark episode in 2014, the Blackpool, UK based Broadway Hotel charged Tony and Jan Jenkinson, a TripAdvisor reviewing couple from Cumbria £100 as fine for the bad review. Apparently the hotel had a printed policy on the matter, which it flashed to the guests as a diktat. While the fine was later refunded, I think, a precedent, however preposterous it may sound now, has been set.
Read more about the Blackpool case here - https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/nov/19/tripadvisor-couple-bad-hotel-review-charged-blackpool-broadway
In another example, and as a nightmare to what ReviewPro exhorts, Paul Chatwin, the owner of Royal Clarence Hotel in Burnham-on-Sea, a 3 star establishment in Somerset, has taken to responding to each bad review on TripAdvisor with his characteristically hilarious rude replies. In a surprise move, the guests who like his hotel - and it is a higher percentage than those who do not - commend his honesty and find it an appreciable trait. Still, as a brand owner doing a Chatwin on your detractors is only for the brave hearts who can take it on the chin each time. But I would not recommend it at all as a normal practice.
Read about Paul Chatwin's rude replies here - https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/frustrated-hotel-owner-hits-back-11628576
Social media excesses of a consumer cannot be dealt with in a similar manner. At least one party must be more mature, meditated, calm and collected, and judicious in its approach. And more often than not, that must be the brand and the brand owner.
Himmat Anand, the Founder of the handpicked jewel-like Tree of Life Resorts & Hotels, puts it very succinctly when he says, "What we see happening today is only the beginning of the use / misuse of social media. Traditional platforms like TripAdvisor will have to change their model soon or face extinction because every traveller considers himself/herself an expert and unlike earlier, has multiple platforms to express his appreciation or frustration. The good thing is that with an explosion of posts and opinions, memory is short. What a guest writes today is forgotten tomorrow. So unless a hotel messes up day after day, I doubt that the occasional negative post has any major impact on brand positioning."
While majoring in Psychology, we were taught how Power, Leadership and Control were the three bases on which every kind of human behaviour rested and sprung from. With Social media platforms available to us to voice out, put our asked for or unsolicited opinion on, rant at large; we feel a sense of unmitigated power and unhinged control over things that effect us or even those that are of no concern but we must still jump in with our two cents. Somewhere down the line, we are losing the grip on equivalence and justness.
But you know what; we are painting a Dirty Picture for ourselves. As not just consumer of brands but of society at large, we are messing it up in real and on Social media.
The most recent incident involving Film Actor Anushka Sharma and Indian Cricketer Virat Kohli shaming an affluent bloke travelling in a luxury sedan yet shamelessly littering the Mumbai streets is a sharp case in point. To add insult to injury, the unrepentant, brazen fella calls the star and the cricketer ugly names when pulled up publicly for his uncouth act. He then, even more outrageously, goes out to play an uglier match on the Social media.
The Anushka Sharma and the Littering Lout Social Media Wrangle - https://scroll.in/video/882950/mumbai-man-who-littered-versus-anushka-sharma-who-shamed-him-its-a-feud-now-watch
And that is us today, in a nutshell. The war is on. Go check your Social media feeds!