The Problem With Empowering The Customer
The Problem With Empowering The Customer
The Problem With Empowering The Customer

My friend Edward Boches had a crappy experience at a Marriott Hotel last week. Like any good content producer, he blogged about it. Social media more than any other communications mechanism before has done more for placing market control back in the hands of the consumer. The barrier to entry to the web is a pulse and scant brain waves. If you are moderately functional, you can publish.

Boches, who has far more brain waves than most of us, offered a fantastic suggestion to any business in his post. He saw through his frustration to offer up a customer bill of rights of sorts for Marriott. He suggested it look something like this:

1. We guarantee your satisfaction.

2. We guarantee your room will be clean and that everything works: the clock, TV, lamps, bathroom.

3. If for any reason your stay with us was unsatisfactory we will make it up with comparable accommodations on us.

4. We will take any complaint and suggestion seriously and respond as quickly as humanly possible.

5. We encourage you to Tweet, blog, and post images and video of anything you find below standards or unresolved.

Edward Boches
Edward Boches. Image by Bob_Collins via Flickr

Certainly, the customer bill of rights idea is noble. Many of us in the power-to-the-consumer world of social media immediately nodded and virtually high-fived Boches for the concept, even if it was less original and more a reminder of what companies should be doing.

When Boches got his response from Marriott and they offered apologies and explanations and engaged commentors on his original post, he followed up with a lessons learned kind of story. In it, he offered these thoughts for customers to keep in mind as a sort of quid pro quo for brands who grovel accordingly:

We should make our issues public.

It’s smarter to offer suggestions than criticism.

We should welcome any brand or individual who tries to learn and engage.

If we want brands to deliver better service, it’s partly our responsibility to guide them there and hold them to it.

And the congregation said, “Amen.” Right?

Maybe not.

While I’m certainly supportive of the idea that brand should treat their customers with the utmost care and respect, least they flee to hungry competitors or even to the interwebs to vent their frustrations with them, I think enumerating these ideas as requisites for the general consuming public is idyllic and naive. For every consummate professional out there (like Boches), there exists about 15 dipshits who will only bitch to bitch. Or bitch to get free stuff.

The customer is not always right. In fact, sometimes the customer is quite an asshole.

Should consumers hold brands to a higher standard? Yes. Should we unleash the huddled masses, trailer trash and mouth-breathers on Twitter and Facebook and blogs to whine about every misstep or oversight they encountered while buying Natty Light and Marlboro Light 100s at the Circle K? I’m thinking no. Half their problem is that they wouldn’t have hurt themselves stepping on the pop-top if they were wearing shoes, or were paying attention to where they stepped rather than yelling at their baby-daddy on the prepaid cell.

Yes, the portrait is exaggerated, but to illustrate a point. Not everyone is a civilized consumer. Not everyone plays fair. And this country is as mired in moany, bitchy negativity as it frankly needs to be, in my opinion.

Maybe I’m just having a bad week, but there’s a big difference is a polite blog post pointing out a bad consumer experience and a web full of Springer plots.

Thanks to Boches for opening the dialog. Thanks to Marriott for learning from the experience and participating in the conversation. But don’t we owe it to our sanity to establish some limits? Or is sufficient brain waves to figure out how to publish online enough?

A penny for your thoughts … unless you’re barefoot in public. The money would be better spend on footware. Heh.

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About the Author

Jason Falls
Jason Falls is the founder of Social Media Explorer and one of the most notable and outspoken voices in the social media marketing industry. He is a noted marketing keynote speaker, author of two books and unapologetic bourbon aficionado. He can also be found at
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  • barefooter

    Do you work for a shoe company or something?

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  • i lmao at the end … good article and very true.

  • Absolutely Jason…the customer is not always right. But honestly 'what’s right and what’s wrong!” and more importantly who decides? I know it feels like a whole lot of them just want to bitch – they seem to have all the time in the world. But, maybe as marketers, we need to read between lines…dismiss the irrelevancy and look at it as an opportunity….in this phase of social media conversation boom, we will have to learn to put aside the negative energy and only look at them with a lens that makes marketing sense.

  • I may be a bit closer to the trailer trash to be objective but I missed how how your portrait was exaggerated, especially the part about where the baby-daddy was being yelled at on a pre-paid cell phone. You failed to mention how the kid was flung over one arm, bouncing around like half sack of potatoes while baby-mamma was pulling up her tube top with her other hand, all the while yelling at her baby-daddy while her baby-stroller pushing BFF was saying “uh-huh, that's right” every few seconds. That might have been exagg…. Nope, not even getting started.

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  • Jason, I agree whole-heartedly that there are people out there simply complaining and trying to game the system for freebies. While most (if not all) of the people who'll be commenting here will not represent the aforementioned group, they do represent the people who don't “generally suck.” If the whiners, complainers and gamers push hard enough in a public forum like blog or Facebook comments, tweets, etc., and the company being “attacked” is obviously engaged in the conversation to make things right, the majority of people will understand where the real problem lies.

    Some people will never be happy. It's a choice. Their choice. Companies can only do their best. They can't choose happiness for the chronically unhappy. Good stuff… as usual.

  • Great points Jason. I do believe complaints should be polite suggestions. The challenge (and the beauty) is everyone is really different, with different tastes, expectations, temperments, etc. If only we understood each other – and got the point.

    Two things are funny right now –

    1.) I just read this Chinese Proverb quote 5 minutes ago and it made me laugh “There are three truths: my truth, your truth, and the truth.

    2.) …And…Oh my gosh, I am so barefoot right now.

    Oh, wait….I have a half point~

    2.5) Seriously…. I really am barefoot so it makes your post all the more poignant.

    Thank you for always sharing the awesome mindstarters. xo

  • Of course you can't always do what the customer wants otherwise you are shifting your company from one that makes business decisions to one that operates under the “populous rules” mentality; and if that's the case then you really don't need much of a leadership team. However, I think there's a difference between customers who chose to voice their opinions publicly via their own channels or social sites vs an organization that actually empowers customers to provide feedback and share their experiences. Lego Factory for example empowers its customers to make and design their own products while being able to communicate and share with a large community. Lego let's customers shape their own experiences and provides them with the means and tools to do so. This is not the same thing as a Lego Customer just writing up a blog post talking about Lego on their own personal blog.

    Empowering a customer has the same issues that social media has always had. Customers can always say what they want about you, when they want, and how they want.

  • Sheri

    I totally agree! The customer is NOT always right if his/her intent is to milk the system for freebies.

  • If you empower the customer too much, they will take that knowledge and use it against you

  • This made me laugh. Also, very well said and a much appreciated perspective. It definitely seems that for some, social media makes them feel entitled to be a complete doucher when it comes to calling out businesses on their mistakes.

  • The flip side of this is that you, as a business, have to be real careful not to dismiss complaints or regard everyone as wanting a free meal because that passiveness and lack of caring may well result in the end of your business. As an aside, I've been around the resort/hospitality industry my entire life.

    For example, it can be annoying when a manager or general manager simply throws a freebie at you instead of addressing the problem. A freebie isn't always (or maybe even usually) what it is about. It's about a damaging experience and time that you can't get back (scenario: family vacation with your kids where resort employees offered exceptionally poor service – you don't get to have a vacation every week and your kids are only getting bigger). You don't want a freebie, you want the value for your money, understanding and assurance that something will be done.

  • Now that I'm working in the restaurant and hospitality industry, this post could not ring more true. Anyone will say anything to get a free meal and often do. It's not just about knowing boundaries with your customers or establishing “rights,” it's about knowing what you will and won't respond to. It's about drawing a line in the sand. I actually created a social media handbook for Landry's that definitively states when we DON'T and WON'T respond to negative feedback. I also try to empower our managers to feel like they don't always have to just give things away to make customers feel better – I try to teach them better problem solving through engagement. Handing out gift cards is the “get out of jail free card” of the restaurant industry. And people will exploit that whenever they can.

  • As a former-waitress-of-seven-years-turned-social-media-strategist, I know just how much customers can be (as you put it, Jason) assholes. They are not always right, are often quite the opposite of right. It comes down to two things: appeasing that asshole so that the situation doesn't escalate, and managing the brand image in the process. Do you have to “make it right”? Give away something for free? No. Sometimes, the best thing I ever did as a waitress was kick out the obnoxious 20somethings. But sometimes it was comping an entire meal (even if they were being jerks, they may have had a point – especially in the eyes of the other patrons) – and making a big deal out of it. Translate that to social media, and you'll see what I mean.

    You really need to evaluate the effects of each situation differently. Hard and fast policies may mean you miss a crucial, game changing complaint (or praise.)

  • Great post, Jason.

    Why not give the company an opportunity to make it right before acting like a total asshole? There are a few realities, including that companies are run by humans last I checked, and humans sometimes make mistakes. What sets a great company apart is not perfection, but how they respond to mistakes. It is much classier to give them an opporunity to make you happy in private than to potentially damage their brand on something that may be an anomaly before you give them a chance.

    Last I checked, we also have a free market economy. If you don't like something a company does, you can also take your business elsewhere. That's the true customer bill of rights.

    • Great Reply Carol to Jason's good post. As a small business owner for over 30 years I credit my success on exactly the points that you make..

  • Jason,

    You make a poignant point about the phenomena of people complaining to obtain free goods. As a community manager the largest source of negative feedback I come across is from community members upset they didn't win a free prize. This puts myself, and those acting as community managers, in difficult a position. We want to reward our communities for their participation, enthusiasm, and passion but a small amount of bad apples always seem intent on trying to ruin everyone's good time. It's unfortunate this has become a byproduct of the relatively anonymous nature of the internet.

    Take care Jason and I look forward to more insights.

  • I recently had a SM bitch-fest about lack of customer service at a local bicycle shop where I was prepaperd to spend $500-1,000 on a bike for my wife (CycleSmith, Halifax,NS,Canada) … which in reflection may have been my own personal bias against the store. Regardless, I am not one to “bitch for free stuff”. In my mind I had a legitimate issue with the company, and twittered/blogged about it. I even wrote the manager. Their offer to “make it right” was minimal at most. I had previously spent over $1,000.00 on a bike there before, but I can't in good conscience buy from them again. Now – who's the bad guy here?

    • Legitimate complaints and issues, even when personal bias comes into play,
      aren't the problem. You sound like you had a reasonable beef. The problem is
      the people who look to take advantage of the bike shop when there wasn't a
      problem. They use social media as a threat, not as a constructive criticism

  • Burma999

    I work at an independent school, and this is what schools sometimes fear about opening the floodgates of feedback: for every decent parent with a legitimate beef, there might be 10 incessant whiners who don't know what they're talking about. And at schools, are parents and student even “customers”? Yes and no. Thorny issues. Nice post.

  • Nice blog..very informative

  • Nice blog very informative.


  • KarenSwim

    Jason, oh thank goodness, I was holding my breath there for a moment thinking you'd gone batty. Consumers are not always right, and brands can fail. That's life. Neither of us has to accept it but we owe it to one another to be respectful. I take issue with consumers who rant publicly without first attempting to resolve the issue directly with the company as much as I take issue with companies that cultivate poor service in their working environment. However, I am acutely aware that social media is a double edged sword and as you wield the blade of power it can also strike you.

  • Jason,

    This is awesome. I yelled “Amen” at the end, way to wrap it up. Humans have an egocentric and irrational side, and sometimes their behavior is uncharacteristic of who they truly are in person. I've met some real internet bullies that are very passive in real life when they demanded a meeting (and surprisingly got the appointment).

    I tell my staff that we are to take customer (member) feedback, criticism, suggestions as inspiration, NOT direction.

    Great post, thank you.

  • Emceearnold

    From the bottom of my (now thankfully no longer) long term retail employed soul – thankyou!
    The customer is many things, most often completely forgettable (sorry folks, but it's true), and yes, sometimes utter arseholes, and very occasionally – but often enough to keep the retail suicide rate down – absolutely brilliant.
    Just like the staff, and everybody else. Peoples is peoples, and we all have bad days.

  • Great post. I had a dodgy experience with Eurostar and I posted my complaint (link to BNET):

    Interestingly, less than 24 hours later I received a response from Eurostar. In the interest of fairness I “graded” their response in a subsequent post:

    The pivot point? Using the internet to amplify one's voice is effective in both praise and criticism.

  • Jason,
    Thanks for advancing the conversation. My suggestion for a brand encouraging its customers to tweet and shout out, both pro and con, goes like this.

    1. If they want customers to give them props, they need to learn to accept criticism, and maybe even welcome it.
    2. Customers are going to do it anyway, right? Ideally they won't simply rant or be critical for no justifiable reason, but the fact is now that they can speak publicly they will. Think Motrin, United, Comcast, BP, and dozens of others. So why not at least acknowledge that you, the brand, know this will happen.
    3. And this is the big one. If a brand posts if you will a “call for constructive criticism,” I believe two things will happen. A. The company and its employees will have a constant reminder that their every action is potentially public and therefore they'll be more careful to adhere to their standards of service (perhaps even elevating them in the process). B. Customers will interpret the invitation as a manifestation of the brand's pledge to do well. Ideally their reaction will be, “Wow, this company is so committed to service that it's willing to put it's reputation on the line in the social space.”

    The point isn't really to get more people to say nasty things; rather it's to take an action that might influence employees and let customers know they're being listened to.

    • Fair point, my friend. And good idea all around. I just think we're a nation
      of whiners. There will always be 10 or so people taking advantage to every
      one that is offering criticism in a constructive fashion. Not saying that
      means we don't open the doors, but we need to be aware of it. People, in
      general, suck sometimes.

      • I think you are being far too conservative in your “people, in general, suck sometimes” edict…

        Sorry but I think there's a whole lotta jackoffs running around today. I seem to get behind them all either in line at the supermarket or on the road going thru a toll booth…

        Hell we had people filing insurance claims after 9/11 and they were hundreds of miles away for chrissakes…

        Damn, now my blood's boiling nice and hot… thanks Jason and Edward… damn you both to hell… ok, maybe not hell, but someplace hot.

        • kirstenwright

          I agree – I think that there are just so many people who complain for the sake of complaining! I absolutely think that companies need to be held accountable for what they do (or don't do) but giving the public invited free reign to bitch on social media about everything? That is just a can of worms.

  • I clicked the 'thumbs down' on this post. Why? Was it anything you wrote? No. Very well thought out and succinctly stated. Do I have anything against Jason Falls? No. I really respect him as a thinker in the social media space. Am I hoping to get my next post free? Maybe. But that isn't the real reason…the REAL reason is that I did it because I could. And, that it is my right to share this opinion thanks to social media. Also, I may use this subversive comment as content for a future tweet, facebook update and/or blog post.

    [Comment note: please read the preceding comment with extreme sarcasm.]

  • Thompson Morrison

    I really like this post. The other thing that happens when companies self-flagellate over negative social media postings is they deplete their brand by being inconsistent with customers. Customers who scream the loudest are treated one way, while everyone else is treated another. I've blogged about this issue here:

  • Jason –

    I just blogged about this a few weeks ago. It was an open letter to consumers to think before they post. We've always talked about business ethics – but I think it is time to also discuss consumer ethics. Kudos on the post.


  • Mr. T

    This has been going on long before social media, or even the Internet. If you got the balls, and complain long and loud enough, there is a 95% chance you will get your meal comped in any restaurant. Not that *I* have done that!

  • As an advocate for small business owners there has to be a balance. Putting things on the table for all to see can sometimes takes the sting from those who would take and manipulate the situation, however I certainly don't see the unconditional approach as good for the small business owner, especially in a culture that lacks accountability. It doesn't have to be about “who” is right, it's about “what” is right. The unconditional approach beckons and situationally rewards every online bully and troll – a process I do not support. I believe in absolutely taking care of the consumer and lean on the generous side but until you can carve out the bully side of human nature I just don't believe the small business owner should be laid on the sacrificial alter. There are different processes that can be put in place as “buffers” that still raise the bar in quality for the consumer, but, at the same time the small business owner (who had the gumption and self-discipline to work their dreams into reality) deserves and should position themselves for their well-earned respect.

  • lieflarson

    Saw a sign in a local business last Friday. It read, “The customer is always right, but we have the option of deciding who the customer is.”

    – Lief

    • That's great — was it a bar? If so, it sounds like my kind of joint.

      • lieflarson

        Club Yaeger in downtown Minneapolis before the Twins/Angels game.

  • Jason… as usual spot-on and hysterical… I LOL'd at the “Natty Lights and Marlboro Lights 100's at the Circle K” reference… Ahhh you can take the boy out of Texas but….

    Anyway…. I think there's also a very interesting correlative trend happening now in Social Media as it pertains to brands that somehow get on the wrong side of an issue. Once the brand has “F'd up” somehow the angry hordes, that would have never cared a whit before, are suddenly so “outraged” that they feel compelled to boycott or become trolls. I wrote about this specifically during the whole Target and Nestle Vs. Greenpeace thing here:

    But basically (just so ya'll don't have to go visit the site if ya don't want) my question was basically “How do you argue with someone who doesn't want to be right?” As Target is learning the hard way – and JetBlue seemed to handle with some aplomb – there is definitely a thin line here… And learning how to tread it will be one of the new arts of marketing and PR.

    Now, if you'll excuse me I gotta get in my El Camino, head down to the Circle K – get some 'quill – and get my drink on…

  • I now officially have a mancrush.

    Part of what will occur over time is that transparency will shift to a more middle ground between the company and the consumer. Social media, much like society as a whole, has a natural instinct to side against the 'big nasty corporation'. But with transparency into the everyday dialogs these companies are having with their consumers comes a greater realization that perhaps that business isn't always out to stomp on the little guy. Perhaps that little guy is sometimes out there to take advantage. And if we've learned anything, it's that social media has a very strong ability to rally the troops to supposed injustices. My hope is that we'll be just as eager to stomp on that little guy when they are exposed.

  • Jason,
    Just a bit tough to swallow – but I get your point. Basically don't be naive about who gets the microphone. But…
    I'm worried about who get's given the job of deciding who is the “right” customer and who is the “trailer trash” you are talking about. In my personal experience, businesses are not that good at it. It's not the outliers I'm worried about, its the just so-so customer who gets “militarized” because customer service makes the wrong call.

    What say you :)

  • What a great post! There sure aren't any easy answers. But maybe we are coming to understand commerce is not so much about selling and buying as it is about establishing trusting relationships. Whether you represent the biz or the consumer, you have equal responsibility to be civil and generous at the very least.

  • I totally agree with this post, except if we're talking about AT&T or Time Warner Cable. They litter the floor with so many pop-tarts even ninjas step on them. I could read “dipshit” rants against AT&T all day, every day… it's a hobby.

  • beley

    Not ALL customers are right. Not all customers are ideal customers, though.

    I think it's really important to define your ideal customer… who is it that you want to reach? Once you've defined them, it's much more important to listen to your ideal customers and try to keep them satisfied, than to try to make everyone happy.

  • Hey Jason.. I agree with what you're saying. Looking at myself, I try to be really diplomatic about the bad experiences I share online and keep it to the ones that really bother me, where I really feel I am being wronged in a meaningful way. I don't always succeed, but I try.

  • Interesting, backwards perspective. One that many people would be offended by. Good call!

  • I totally agree with you on this one because there are some people out there that will NEVER be satisfied, they just want to get something for free. Was it you who called this type of never satisfied customers: turds? Encouraging everyone to point out every knit-picky detail of things that didn't make them happy just leads to either apathy or bankruptcy on the part of a company. I think it has to be either constructive or used in the event of truly bad experiences. When the Comcast guy falls asleep on your couch you should put it on YouTube, when your Comcast goes out for 10 minutes because of a tornado you should probably keep it to yourself. Establishing limits though, I'm not sure I'm behind. Who determines when something is legitimate? I think everyone should voice their concerns online but can't get upset if they're not attended to, they might just not be worth it. I think at the very least though it's worth the company's efforts to hear people out online and respond in some way.

    Personal anecdote, I wrote a blog post about a bad flight back from my honeymoon. The post was called A Living Social Media Case Study – US Airways – Are they listening?

    The reason that I wrote the post was not to get something for free but to see if US Airways was even listening. In fact, they were, but only after my blog got enough traffic with that post. The funny part is that they kept stressing that “we don't normally do this or monitors blogs and twitter and such.” They basically proved the point of my post. Companies obviously have to monitor these channels because we're out here talking.

  • Dana Webster

    Having worked for Marriott for 4 years in college, I can assure everyone that, while they are a profitable company, they do take the guest experience very seriously. As a lowly front office associate making $8.46 as a college grad (thanks to a wise degree in Biology), I was empowered to offer compensation to guests as needed pending the severity of the issue.

    Marriott was a very good employer and took their brand very seriously.

    However, many of the guests were exactly as Jason describes the extra 15 – they would do ANYTHING to get something for free. One guy raced past us in the restaurant, straight up to the front desk and demanded a free stay because he found a roach in his coffee pot. My sister was working the front desk, was extremely apologetic, comp'd their breakfast and had other departments look into it – only to find the species of roach was not native to Northern Virginia. The guest had transplanted it from wherever they came from to get a free room.

    I've found that many of my comments about dissatisfaction about a brand (e.g. Linkedin, Honda) have largely gone unnoticed in the world of Social Media. Many companies have the presence simply to keep up with their competitors, few take it seriously enough to make their brands rock solid.

  • “The customer is not always right. In fact, sometimes the customer is quite an asshole.”

    Love it!

    The problem is that the customer doesn't know it most of the time! ;o)


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