Sunday, June 19, 2011

Has Online Griping Become Social Bullying?

By Larry Kahaner

One of the ways in which you know whether or not an action is ethical is to ask yourself, "How would I feel if this incident ended up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal?" I have noticed several companies that have taken this to the internet level, and it got me to thinking about the ethical challenges and responsibilities of the complainer.

For example, the website Gripe sports the motto "Word-of-mouth is powerful" and allows users to easily post a complaint to their Twitter followers, Facebook page, and a company’s service department.  The company is invited to fix the gripe and earn a ‘cheer.’ The beauty of this system is that it all but eliminates rants or trivial complaints because no one wants to seem like a whiner or jerk in front of their friends. Let’s look at this from the company’s angle. They don’t want bad publicity and lots of people angry at them so they’re motivated to find a remedy -- and fast. On the other hand, are they being socially bullied into fixing a problem? Assuming that the unhappy consumer has tried the company’s regular complaint channels and received no relief, then the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ However, if the customer has not gone to the company first, then yes, they will be a victim of social-bullying which is unfair.

The old-school intermediary, the Better Business Bureau, offers an online complaint platform that promises to forward your complaint within two days. The website notes: “The company will be asked to respond within 14 days, and if a response is not received, a second request will be made. You will be notified of the company's response when we receive it (or notified that we received no response). Complaints are usually closed within 30 calendar days.” Are they kidding? That’s like years in internet time. Also, BBB claims that 70 percent of claims are resolved. That’s much too low in my opinion. BBB also says that it will forward your complaint to a company even if you don’t try to get them to fix it first.

This, too, is a bad idea. Companies should have the opportunity to fix things before the next step is taken by the complainer. To me that’s fair and honest, as we all make mistakes, and having the chance to fix it, allowing us to act ethically and fair, is a foundation of civility. I like the idea of letting your cyber friends know about how a company has done you wrong; I like the idea of airing grievances in public and using your real name. Anonymous complainers spouting their views in forums about a company’s actions are not engaging in productive dialogue. Transparency (read: shame) can be a motivator of ethical behavior.  But let’s not forget that online complaints can hurt a company’s reputation, and it’s up to all of us with keypads and keyboard to use them wisely.


This article was originally published on the William G. McGowan Fund blog.

Larry Kahaner has been a business journalist for more than 20 years, a former Business Week Washington correspondent, and the author of many books about business ethics including: Values Prosperity and the Talmud: Business Lessons from the Ancient Rabbis; Competitive Intelligence: How to Gather, Analyze, and Use Information to Move Your Business to the Top; and Say It and Live It: The 50 Corporate Mission Statements That Hit the Mark, (co-author).

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