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Paperchase & The Increasing Voice of Social Media

Paperchase have finally come clean.

And not before time.  I’ve already said that this was an issue which they could and should have handled much better.  CEO Timothy Melgund’s apology falls short of what I believe is in order, namely a full apology for and retraction of his comments to the newspapers about Twitter and its user community, but it is at least an acceptance that Paperchase did not handle the situation at all well.

Hidden Eloise writes some Final Advice To Paperchase which includes the following:

“Here is what I propose instead to Paperchase.
  1. Make a clean and public apology for the bad research that led you to the conclusion that no copying was ever done.
  2. Acknowledge publicly that the plagiarism was real and my allegations correct.
  3. Retract publicly the damaging comments you made regarding me and all the Twitter users.
  4. Put the infringing items back on sale and give all profits from this range of products to a charity of my choice, supporting something that we both hold dearly: independent artists.”

Regular readers will know that Paperchase isn’t the first company to feel a backlash from social media users.  Livejournal, Phorm, the Daily Mail, Trafigura and others have all recently felt the impact of bad news spreading like wildfire.  Matthew DeBord thinks that Toyota should also be included on this ever growing list:

“None of this, though, can contend with the breakneck, crowdsourced, unmediated reputation-wrecker that is the 140 characters of a tweet. As the recall story exploded last week and I pondered the collapse of the vaunted Toyota Way, I checked the #Toyota Twitter tag frequently. The tweet-rate was blistering: Dozens of new tweets every 30 seconds. Give it half an hour and you had a thousand more. Even the most hardened PR warrior would have looked at that and wet his pants.”

Think about that first sentence.  Its implications are massive.  Through the connections of social networking an issue which a company tries to hide or ignore can become a horrendously large reputation destroyer.  It’s not quite chaos theory but one person’s tweet or blog entry can theoretically snowball and grow into something huge.  Hidden Eloise is a perfect illustration of this.  One blog post written after being ignored by Paperchase was picked up and became a story the mainstream media couldn’t ignore because social networking spread the news.

This is perhaps something that isn’t as expected in the UK as America because the British are generally seen as very poor complainers and tolerant of poor service.  That is starting to change, albeit slowly.  One example is when Southeastern railways were rightly criticised by passengers for their performance in the recent snowy weather in the South East; many of them complained to MPs and the London Assembly and today a LA report berated them in official language.  Southeastern’s customer service has been pathetic.  There is little goodwill towards them from passengers.  The only way to improve that is to significantly improve customer service.  Already there is the start of a move to get Southeastern’s franchise removed.  Social networking will play an important role in any such move, or more specifically, collecting evidence for that campaign.

Customers are becoming more aware of attempts to delay responses, spin answers and obstruct responses to simple questions about service failures.  To provide a decent service in the social media age organisations need to truly place customer service at the heart of everything they do.  Make it easy for customers and potential customers to engage with them; deal with customers and complaints honestly, sensibly, without protecting vested interests and in a timely fashion; acknowledge when something has gone wrong, apologise sincerely; act to right the wrong caused and prevent it from happening again; learn from mistakes.

They also need a strategy for whatever presence they have on social media.  Like anything else done by the organisation the strategy needs to be consistent with the organisation’s brand and claimed values.  This point is vital.  Communications should always be of the highest standard whether in letter, e-mail or on Twitter.  Standards and clear policies need to be in place to ensure this is clearly understood by all concerned.  Habitat and Vodafone are two prize examples of how not to let your corporate presence be used.  Both companies will say they acted quickly in removing the offender.  The point is that the standards and policies should never have been broken in the first place – these are service and communications professionals!

Paperchase didn’t have a Twitter account before this story broke.  Their FromPaperchase account smacked of thinking “We’d better get something – anything up on Twitter so we can go on the defensive” and not really having any strategy.  It doesn’t matter how companies phrase things, if they are seen to be descending into a slanging match then they’re going to lose reputation and customers.  “Reputation management” companies (aka legal bully boys) may come into the fray at this point but if they do then the organisation’s reputation is not only already damaged but will surely be further damaged.  I’m looking at Phorm again.

The amazing thing is that so much of this is not rocket science.  It’s sensible stuff to anyone with a clear head. I’ve written such policy documents and trained staff on their contents.

BT and Virgin Media (two companies of whom I’m not the greatest fan) are using Twitter as a branch of their customer service and seem to be getting things mostly right in my experience.  Whether or not I get any more junk mail from Virgin Media will be the proof of that particular pudding.

Is this the start of a major change in the way organisations engage with their customers?  I hope so.  Customer service and ethics need to be truly at the heart of organisations’ cultures.  I don’t mean overdosing on those supposedly “motivational” posters.  I mean by ensuring every staff member works to an accountable code of conduct and standard.  I mean by ensuring that every customer’s communication is welcomed rather than just “processed in line with procedures”.  I mean by organisations employing people who truly believe in doing the right thing rather than programmable drones who are reprogrammed after failures and learn nothing from them.  I mean by organisations being open and honest with customers, not hiding behind misleading spin and mendacity.  Spin should stay on the cricket pitch.  It has no place in business.

There are a few entries here dealing with some experiences of poor customer service.  Why won’t organisations listen to the customers whom they are supposed to serve?

Let’s end on an idealistic note. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were no longer snotty council officials who refused to answer questions, just putting the phone down on people?  Wouldn’t it be nice if there were no longer companies claiming to offer a revolutionary service but who were actually breaking the law?  Wouldn’t it be nice if justified complaints from customers were responded to openly and honestly, with real apologies and proper action to compensate and prevent recurrence?

Social networking can help move towards this point.  We may never get there but the organisations that will not move will be named and shamed.  The lessons are here for Managing Directors and CEOs.  Times are changing: organisations’ approaches to customer service need to change with them.  It could be messy for those who do not.  Vox populi can be a force for good.

Published inbad managementbusinessethicsInternetsocial mediaTwitter

One Comment

  1. Your first link has gone dead because Paperchase has now removed their statement on the case from the contact page on their web site.

    I have some experience in the social stationery business and unfortunately it is surprisingly easy for these sort of copyright issues to occur and for an otherwise competent and reputable company to be find itself in the wrong by acting in good faith. I’m surprised that given their long commercial history Paperchase haven’t had anything like this happen before.

    Whilst they were undoubtedly the victims to start off with, they took full ownership through the arrogant, inept and willful way they responded to Hidden Eloise’s complaint. And they may well have got away with it were it not for social media and twitter. Now they have a daunting brand resurrection project ahead of them. The brand damage surely outweighs the costs of settling decently with Hidden Eloise in the first place.

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