Social Network poison – where it comes from and what to do about it

Mantra Pandanas - lovely soaps

Ask any accommodation provider about TripAdvisor and you can almost feel the tension rise in the air.

This is because TripAdvisor allows ordinary travellers to give the warts and all view of accommodation facilities – the minutiae not covered in the glossy brochures.

In many ways, it is a focussed version of the millions of spur-of-the-moment comments shared by travellers and consumers via Facebook and Twitter on a daily basis.

In my web 2.0 marketing workshop again this week, some business people were preoccupied by fear of being in the line of fire from consumer sentiment.

So with that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper, see what drives us to vent when we’re not happy and think about responses.

Why do we spew forth poisonous comments about products and services?

Evolutionary biologists tell us that our prolific reaction to bad service stems from an evolved need to warn those around us away from danger.

What was once a series of messages like ‘don’t eat those berries, they are poisonous,’ or ‘stay away from that creek, the water is bad’ have become ‘don’t shop here, you’ll be ripped off’ or ‘don’t stay there if you need peace and quiet’.

As I reflect on my stay at the Mantra Pandanas this week in Darwin, I have had moments when I wanted to scream to the world ‘don’t come here’ and moments when my expectations were happily met.

Here is my list of gripes

  • Day 1 – bar fridge was checked as I arrived but nobody returned to replenish the previous guest’s usage. I notify reception to make sure my employer is not charged incorrectly.
  • Day 1 – Call restaurant to book room service. No answer. Call reception, no answer. Wait a couple minutes and repeat. Call the outside line from my mobile and deliver my room service order that way.
  • Day 2 – I return to the cafe around 11am for a late morning coffee, two people behind counter but they say they are closed until dinner time. This prompts me to check if that is true because a day earlier I specifically asked when checking in if it would be possible to hold a meeting with a handful of people in their cafe/restaurant around 4ish the next day. They confirm that is not possible. Now I must traipse off to find an alternative venue.
  • Day 2 – Return to my room around 6pm, bar fridge has still not restocked. Keen for water i call reception to be told the bar fridge lady has just finished for they day. I say I just need some water, they suggest trying the restaurant for smaller bottles.
  • Day 3 – I ask restaurant staff if i can arrange a takeaway lunch for the morning, staff member says they might be able to do lunch box takeaways and to ask at reception. Reception has never heard of such things. Says they do breakfast boxes and to ask in the restaurant.
  • Day 4 – Return to hotel to find bar fridge has been ignored again. Call reception around 5.15. They will send someone. At 5.40ish I call back and am put onto restaurant. They say they will send someone. I call reception back at 6.15 and they say they will send someone. Around 6.20 my bottle of water arrives.

For the record, I want to say that none of these offences deserve capital punishment. I also want to point out that the bed is very comfortable, their soaps are divine, their menu does the job, and most staff are very friendly. As I note in a number of Trip Advisor reviews, the issue seems to be systems. What is interesting, from a consumer’s point-of-view is that I typically stay at the Mantra On Esplanade and apart from one or two sour people from time to time, the experience of staying there is a delight and hence my expectations were high for this Mantra.

I did tweet in frustration once during one of these bouts, not so much to warn the world but to vent frustration.

I believe the underlying dynamic that gives rise to ‘poisonous’ rantings comes down to respect. If a customer feels disrespected (and being handballed from one area to another sits in that category) or ignored, social networks make it easy for them to get attention by naming the problems publicly.

Service and product providers need to be on notice, especially when we hear that 50% if mobile phone internet connections are used to access Facebook. That is very tempting for a jilted customer.

So what can business owners do about it?

Let me say that copping criticism is never pleasant. I don’t encourage wanton besmirching of establishments and products but at the same time I must stand up for consumers’ rights to demand satisfaction.

I think there are two main tactics managers or owners can adopt to deal with this issue of social criticism.

Firstly, look at your product or service itself. Where are its weak points? Where do you find it too hard to match the expectations set by your industry or your own marketing? I have to tell you, hearing the Mantra’s on-hold message about guests setting their own mantras based on ‘I will” during the frustrating periods made me complete the invitation with the phrase ‘never stay here again’. This is the problem when a marketing message is too big, too open, too all-encompassing to realistically deliver in practice.

Marketing has long been based on the four Ps – Product, Price, Place and Promotion. And the first line of defence against public criticisms is to work on the first P, Product, to iron out kinks.

What expectations are you setting for customers?

Secondly, the next step is to monitor the web for mentions of your name via social networks, blogs, forums, etc.

In the case of Mantra Pandanas, it is heartening to see that general manager David Brill regularly responds to reviews on TripAdvisor, thanking guests for compliments and noting what has been done about criticisms. This is good practice. And I do admire David’s resilience in writing so calmly and conveying a sense of genuinely ‘hearing’ what reviewers have been saying.

I remember seeing a negative review about Darwin Central Hotel in its website when I booked my first trip to the Top End a few years ago and was about to move on before noticing the next comment was an earnest response from the manager explaining what had happened, expressing sorrow at the experience and pledging to make things right if the reviewer would be happy to continue the conversation. I booked. Seeing how management responds to a problem can be a powerful selling point. (Not that I encourage you to fabricate crises to facilitate your White Knight moments!!).

So in summary, dealing with social criticism is a painful but valuable element of the marketing and management mix.

But the alternative, burying heads in sand, is even more painful in the long run.

After all, people have always talked about poor service and always will, thanks to our genes, but at least now businesses can listen in if they want to and balance conversations.

Please add your commentary below and remember I would like to incorporate all feedback, with attribution, in the final social networking and social media best practices guide being produced for October Business Month.

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