In March 2020 as the COVID-19 epidemic gripped the country, an unknown mattress company based out of Maharashtra released an advert in one of the local newspapers. The advert claimed that the company’s mattress was capable of killing viruses and bacteria, including the deadly SARS-CoV-2 which is responsible for the COVID-19 epidemic. The proposition was simple; in a few thousand bucks, you could sleep in a protective bed that helped you become healthier

Ordinarily, the advert would have been ignored, like so many claims that proliferate on the web. But these were unique times, and to have a company trying to profit from the calamity created a furore. People started sharing the screenshot of the advert on their social media accounts like Twitter & Facebook. Many tweets also called for action against the company and brought the claim to the authorities’ attention. In a little more than a few days, the police got involved, FIR was filed against the owners, and the advert was withdrawn.

The Arihant Mattress story is a vivid example of the changing times we live in. People, or rather customers are not only aware and informed, but they are also empowered and can make a brand pay the price for its follies, be it significant, medium or trivial.

REPUTATION MANAGEMENT

With the emergence and spread of social media, brands have suddenly discovered the immense power of the media in the ability to reach out to the customers directly and the disruptive side. Disgruntled customers can now share their agony with the whole universe, in a matter of minutes by punching it on their mobile phones. Hashtags, influencers, retweets, can amplify the message manifold, turning a simple tweet into a viral. And then the negativity develops into a trend.

There’s a term that has gained much recognition in the past couple of years, especially in the context of social media. It is called trolling. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the word trolls means to antagonize (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content. And it is not only individuals that are trapped by the trolls, but even brands are also. Numerous instances abound of how, at different times, a couple of rants develops into something big, as the trolls join in. These disgruntled customers and trolls will amplify the negativity by continually highlighting the brand’s frailties, leading to reputational damage.

Bhushan Makhija is a much-attuned customer. His Twitter feed is full of complains against companies that have failed to deliver on their promises. “Social Media has empowered us. Earlier, the companies could ignore customer view points. Now, it can be damaging to their business. Little wonder then, they are quick to address complains via Twitter or Facebook, all you need to do is tag them, and the work gets done,” he says.

It is not as if that offline customer dissatisfaction is any less dangerous. The government has constantly reminded the customers of their rights through campaigns like ‘Jago, Grahak Jago’. The Consumer Courts have also been firmed up, and the tribunals have been proactive in disposing of the customer complaints in a speedier manner. Thus an antagonized customer can take the matter up with the consumer courts and the local authorities, and force the brand to listen to them.

ONLINE REPUTATION MANAGEMENT

And that brings us to an important aspect of managing customer disappointment or dissatisfaction, which is to listen, be sensitive, aware, and attuned. Often, brands neglect the fact that a customer who has brought the product can be a great ambassador or a disgruntled troll. Managing the experience after the sale is as important as managing the expectations during the purchase. Brands that look at the complete lifecycle of customer management tend to do much better. For instance, reviews by verified customers on online emarts like Amazon or Flipkart can make or break for a sale from a prospective customer

Sudish Balan, chief business officer, Tonicmedia Worldwide, works with many brands crafting their advertising and marketing strategies. According to him, managing the customer post-purchase is much more critical than before the sale. “A customer who has purchased a product knows much more details about a product than a one that is planning. He or she is privy to the various features of the product, the sales and after-sales service, the supply-chain and so on. Therefore a verified customer’s voice holds much more weightage since they have invested in the product. A good brand is one that is conscious of that fact,” he states.

Online Reputation Management or ORM has become an essential mechanism for managing customer comments and viewpoints. Some agencies screen the social media universe for any statements or criticisms and try to limit the damage by addressing the view immediately

Sudish lists out some of the important aspects of online reputation management:

  • Invest, engage and monitor the social media universe
  • Nominate individuals within the company to comment and reply
  • Listen and not react to complaints from customers
  • Use caution in using humour sometimes it can be mistaken for sarcasm
  • Be humble and apologetic whenever there’s a mistake
  • Invest in customer relationship management or CRM, which includes modules like ORM

It is not as if the retailers are unaware of the impact of customer viewpoint. Even the oldest Multi brand mattress store retailer in Banglaore, Geoson Agencies has become aware of it. Geoson Agencies is a family-owned business that operates five retail stores in Bangalore and 4 in Kerala. The first store was opened way back in 1975 in Bangalore. The business has grown organically based on their astute customer management. The company has many customers that root for its service and fair price, and the reference model has worked well. But of late, Pious

Abraham, CEO, Geoson Agencies, is noticing a slight shift. “The trust factor is going down these days. Customers do not trust shopkeepers, as much as they did in the past. They are sceptical. Thus as a retailer, we go an extra mile to address that,” he states.

Typically, the customer is going online for deals and discounts and wants retailers to match it.

Abraham too is noticing that trend. “Not only Googling is ubiquitous, but people tend to trust implicitly whatever is mentioned online. And that can be a bit of a challenge,” he adds.

But now, Abraham is becoming conscious of the online medium and monitoring the customers’ comments and reviews. Recently, one angry customer made a rant against the company.

Abraham replied with complete justification, putting his side of the story and explaining in great detail the issue, as it truly was. “The trouble is that happy customers don’t always pen reviews, but unhappy ones do, so now we are paying more attention,” he said.

The local network’s power is seconded by Sai Furnishings is a mattress retailer in Thane, Maharashtra. While the retailer might not bother too much about the social media footprint, namely Twitter or Facebook, they are concerned about the customer ratings on Just Dial or Google.

Ankush Shah, the owner, expresses his concerns. “These days customer reviews play a significant role, even for a local business. We are very conscious about the customer reviews on Just Dial and even Google. We have noticed, people do take notice of these stars and engage businesses accordingly,” he states.

Thus, even at a micro-level, this consciousness is at a rise.

In the end, customer satisfaction should be the be-all and end-all of all the brands, including mattress companies. Be it online or offline; it is important to be humble, sensitive and most importantly, to be honest. A slip-up like the one made by Arihant Mattress can lead to grave consequences. It can turn you into an example that should not be followed.

A brand that follows these simple guidelines will never bother about reputational damage or be ever trolled.

CATEGORIZING THE COMPLAINS (BOX ITEM)

Typically, the concerns raised by the customers or individuals on social media platforms can be classified on a four-point scale and dealt accordingly:

Concern: Mild concern over some trivial issue like some behavioural issue or even packaging.

Solution: Can be easily handled by a proactive approach

Crib:This is a sign of discomfort or irritation regarding the usage of the product.

Solution:Needs to be handled with sensitivity. Brands need to establish a direct channel of communication

Criticism: In this stage, the customer has used the product and is unhappy with the result. He or she will continuously belabour the product or service.

Solution: The brand needs to evaluate and take a measured approach. First up a direct channel of communication with the customer, followed by interaction with a senior member. The brand could also evaluate the return of the product if the issue is genuine. If the scenario is handled well, the customer’s criticism can be converted into a positive assertion.

Cynicism: This is the stage where the customer is derisive of the product or service and belabours it, even when it is not directly related to him.