great for freedom of expression on the Internet, but when it comes to companies and brands being written about, things can get a little complicated. Blogs and consumer forums like ConsumerReview.com and ComplaintsBoard.com have played their part in mobilising the consumer voice online. Very often, the voice is disgruntled, as consumers are wont to complain more than commend. Unless companies have the pulse of fast-moving opinions on the web, they can end up with egg on their face.
When Airtel launched its Call Home service in the US in December 2006, little did it know that it would become a textbook example of how not to handle online communications. Airtel Call Home offered customers calls to India from their PCs at 7.9 cents a minute. This was much cheaper than Reliance's Call India service at 12.9 cents per minute (Reliance soon brought its rates down to match Airtel's).
The result: an outpouring of customer anger. A search on Technorati (a monitor for blogs) for 'Airtel Call Home' led to 1,655 results from blogs. A search on Google for the same phrase led to 14 unfavourable blog posts in the first 30 results. Leading consumer site Complaints Board received 14 complaints within the span of a few days. And new blog posts kept popping up.
Consider Manthan, written by Venkatesh, an Oracle developer for a technology company. Venkatesh's post, on his inability to use the service because the website didn't function, received 96 responses. When contacted by agencyfaqs!, Venkatesh said, "Airtel has messed up because of poor implementation of IT systems and customer support, in spite of their telecom infrastructure." In another blog, Floating Sun, Diwaker Gupta, a PhD student in computer science at the University of California, wrote about the service's shortcomings and received 52 responses.
What was missing in this mêlée was word from Airtel. The problems were clearly technical, but could Airtel have done something to prevent the feedback spreading like wildfire? Sources close to the company said it failed to gauge the enormity of the situation and could not decide on appropriate action. When advised to apologise, the sources added, Airtel ruled it out.
When contacted, Airtel's executive director for enterprise services, Rajan Swaroop, wrote in an e-mail response, "We are aware of these problems raised on blogs. We at Airtel take all customer feedback very seriously and are committed to resolving any issues faced by our customers." While Swaroop admits that there were some "technical issues to begin with", no action was taken. Now, six months after the launch of the service, the site has been under maintenance for the past few days (Update: The website is working as on Monday morning).
Airtel's is not an isolated case. It's not tough to find websites created only to denigrate certain brands. At a time when many global companies have developed strategies to address online feedback, are Indian companies behind the curve and unable to control damage in a crisis situation? Or is the medium taken less seriously?
According to Chaya Brian Carvalho, managing director and CEO of interactive agency BC Web Wise, "One of the most important things for a company in such a situation is to be extremely honest about its position. In fact, the more a company delays its response, the more its sincerity level drops."
While the first step is obviously to attend to the feedback, the second could be to ensure that the damaging information is kept out of immediate sight. This is where search engine optimisation (SEO) can help companies and individuals influence how the first few results pages appear for searches related to them. Of course, this doesn't work all the time, particularly when faced with a deluge of negative feedback, as in the case of Airtel.
Says Prasanth Mohanachandran, executive director, digital services, at Neo@Ogilvy, "We are working on an Online Reputation Management (ORM) system where clients can monitor what is being said about them on the web, especially in communities." He adds that in a situation where there are incorrect or negative reports on the web, the agency's first recommendation to the client is "to listen to what people are saying and respond to them in their own forums".
As the Internet is a medium which allows - and, in fact, depends - on sharing of information, it is vital for firms to have their finger on the pulse of the mood of their consumers. Whether the brands are online or offline, they should have a plan of action ready to deal with online crises.
If social media were not important, Bajaj would not be seeking feedback on its latest bike through blogs. "The first review of our latest Pulsar was on our table within three hours of its launch in Chennai, thanks to bloggers," S Sridhar, vice-president, marketing, two wheelers, Bajaj Auto, was quoted as saying in a report in 'The Economic Times'. Now, that's a way of turning the chatter on the Internet into strength for your company or brand.