Losing in the Court of Online Opinion

Posted by Zachary on July 31, 2009

I spent a good portion of my formative years in a law firm, as a number of my family members were part of the bar. While I chose a different career path, my time in that environment gave me a few legal insights, including:

  • When "Law & Order" is getting it all wrong. Seriously, trials are rarely that entertaining and never end in 13 minutes.
  • That some matters conclude with no clear winner, regardless of the verdict.

The latter has remained salient, particularly as I've heard more about the woman who's been sued by Chicago-based Horizon Realty Group for tweeting about mold in one of its apartments. The Twitterverse has been ablaze about this development, and you probably can guess whose side it's favoring.

Horizon has issued a press release justifying its actions, but there's probably little it can do to salvage its online reputation. Twitter justice is swift, brutal, and only occasionally rational. Even if Horizon wins in court, it's already lost.

It's how you play the game

While the hand-wringing over the Horizon story may be a bit excessive (This ain't a constitutional battle over free speech, folks.), it highlights an important point about customer service in a wired world. Sometimes, it doesn't matter if you're right or wrong—just that you don't only address complaints with "No" or "You've been served."

Consider the bad PR experienced by United Airlines after a frustrated musician named Dave Carroll scored a viral hit with his song about the airline deflecting responsibility for a busted guitar. His story describes the run-around he faced when trying to address the matter with United, and the biggest shame is that we all have a similar tale.

Most consumers are reasonable people, and they expect reasonable efforts to address their concerns. Failure to engage them likely will result in embarrassing backpedaling or some version of the SODDI defense. In the above cases, I would imagine it would have been cheaper to just fix the mold or fix the guitar.

What do you think? Have online tools given the consumer a little too much power?

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Submitted by Guest on Tue, 09/01/2009 - 10:27am

Hey Zachary,

Thanks for the ruminations on Power to the People. One member of my family would assert that she's always had power as a consumer - even when the head of one company called to say they were picking up their product and had given sales strict instructions never to sell to her again. But, her mission in life was to be a satisfied customer.

I suspect the more reasonable (?) of us, as you say, "expect reasonable efforts to address their concerns." Unfortunately, I have found increasing abandonment of service, whether it's instructions in every language but English or no instructions at all. Who wants to go to a store anymore? And try to get a "supervisor" on the phone, after listening to five minutes (at least) of pre-recorded options (they can never understand a Texas accent). So, I am left with one option - online - and an ever growing community of peeps from Facebook and Twitter. So I say, yes we've been given power . . . finally.

Submitted by Zachary on Tue, 09/01/2009 - 5:04pm

Very good points, particularly that customer service seems to be dying—though some might argue it was never really living.

Generally, I'm a consumer advocate. Still, what worries me about the power afforded by these online tools is the tendency for mob action. This seems especially important with respect to Twitter, where outrage—real or manufactured—moves at light speed.

Of course, we get to have this debate every six months now, given how quickly web tools cycle.