When I attended my first marketing and public relations classes in college, the professors stressed the strength of customer word-of-mouth marketing. In that B.I. era (Before Internet), the accepted ratio was one satisfied customer will tell one other person. That was considered good. If a customer was treated poorly they’d threaten to tell everyone they knew, which translated to their telling twenty other people. That was bad.

Today the many faces of the Internet, individual publishing, and social media have made the good better and the bad horrendous. Websites called companyxxxstinks.com proliferate, and social media word-of-mouth dissing now reaches multi-millions of people through keyword searches, RSS feeds, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, et al.

Unfortunately, many businesses haven’t woken up to this fact, and behave as if bad customer service doesn’t affect them. Or perhaps they feel they are so big they don’t have to care. That’s a big mistake.

Here is a recent example of one man’s clever, entertaining, word-of-mouth condemnation of customer disservice, in this case by United Airlines. I first saw this on 8 July 2009 when my co-editor Sara sent me the link to an online posting on Huffington Post’s Business section. It had already attained a Most Popular listing on YouTube’s front page where it was originally published on 6 July 2009.

Here we see the power of viral marketing, where the message is passed along from person to person, usually farther than the original sender could reach. In this case, the message is coming back around to harm the company. When an unhappy customer says they are going to tell everyone about their horrible customer disservice experience, that translates to telling half the world! For a company like UAL, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, giving bad customer service and pretending no one will hear about it, or that it won’t matter is dangerous, risky business.

Don’t let this happen to you. Focus your attention on providing good customer service or risk being trashed to millions of people every day.

Steve Lange
Senior Editor
Palo Alto Software

P.S. As I’m publishing this post I’m seeing that this story has already been picked up by U.S. and Canadian mainstream media, and had elicited an official statement from UAL by 8 July.

“This has struck has a chord with us. We are in conversations with one another to make what happened right, and while we mutually agree that this should have been fixed much sooner, Dave Carroll’s excellent video provides United with a unique learning opportunity that we would like to use for training purposes to ensure all customers receive better service from us,” the statement said.

Wouldn’t this have been better for everyone if it had been handled by good customer care in the first place?