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Facebook's Faustian bargain

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Progressive Insurance is struggling with the aftermath of a crisis that began when a New York blogger charged that the company gave legal advice to a driver who caused an accident that killed the blogger's sister, a Progressive customer. The social media shockwave has damaged Progressive's carefully cultivated image of customer-friendliness and driven it to a four-year low in customer perception as measured by YouGov. Walmart is dealing with Facebook taunts over a complaint by a Kentucky woman about the theft of her iPhone from a Walmart store. She eventually tracked the device to the home of a store employee. Meanwhile, photographer Thomas Hawk was blasting the retailer for deleting his Facebook posts about a mugging outside a store in Oakland. Some b-to-b companies have had a rough summer, too. Cisco backpedaled in July when tech bloggers savaged it for policy changes that let it peek at the Internet activity of Linksys router users. Have you looked at “Posts by Others” on FedEx's Facebook page lately? Welcome to customer service in the age of social networks, where everybody's tale of woe is public record. Many companies have jumped into Facebook expecting a bounty of word-of-mouth goodness only to find that it's also a magnet for everyone with a gripe. These companies are learning that social networks are a Faustian bargain. They're a great way to share accomplishments and rally fans, but they can just as easily be a prime vector for attack. Customers with a bone to pick can recruit others to their side with a few taps of the keyboard. And they do it on the pages of the very companies they attack. “There's never been a better time to be a critic,” says David-Michel Davies, executive director of the Webby Awards, which recognizes customer service excellence. What can you do about it? Start with asking whether you should be on Facebook at all. Many b-to-b companies shouldn't. Understand what your customers think of you. If you're in an industry where dissatisfaction is rampant—like travel or banking—staff up for the volume of complaints you'll get. Train staff to respond quickly, constructively and empathetically to gripes. Never delete comments that fall within the Facebook Community Standards. You'll make people angrier and drive them elsewhere. Don't copy and paste form-letter responses. And don't disable visitor comments entirely. You're on Facebook to interact. Six years ago, I told you in this space about Port25, a Microsoft blog that enabled open-source critics to vent on a Microsoft-branded portal. The idea of inviting critics into your living room seemed bizarre at the time. Now everyone does it. How times have changed.
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