This post was guest-written by Melissa Lipscomb, Bazaarvoice Community Manager

Does your company have a disaster recovery program for negative word of mouth?

Over the Easter weekend, social networking sites and blogs exploded with negative publicity about online retailing giant Amazon.com. Angry customers are protesting changes on Amazon’s site that lost sales ranking data for hundreds of books dealing with homosexuality, meaning that these books can no longer be found via keyword or subject searches or on best-seller lists.

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Amazon appears to have been taken by surprise by the outrage – #amazonfail was the top-trending term on Twitter, and a Google bomb initiated by a popular blog for romance readers successfully redirected searches for “Amazon rank” to a snarky explanation of the issue before Amazon responded at all.

The initial response was a terse press release explaining that the de-rankings were the result of a “glitch” in the sales-ranking feature. A skeptical public declined to believe this explanation, which is widely perceived as a cover-up for a change in corporate policy – or an overzealous application of the existing policy. And it seems likely that Amazon’s customer service reps are being flooded with angry calls and emails. A subsequent apology included a more detailed explanation that the glitch was due to “an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloguing error,” but conspiracy theories continue to circulate in the blogosphere.

No doubt Amazon’s slow response was due in part to the holiday weekend. It also seems likely that they didn’t have a good plan in place for dealing with a grassroots campaign of this sort. Ironically, Amazon has been a trendsetter in leveraging positive word of mouth, but it seems they were unprepared for the way that negative publicity can also spread rapidly on the Internet.

No one likes to think that a technological glitch or a bad decision by a single employee could result in a PR firestorm. But if something like this happened to your company, what would you do to contain the situation and turn it around?

Here are some suggestions for managing negative word of mouth:

  • React quickly. Monitor user-generated content on your site, customer service complaints, and word of mouth in other venues. If you see a particular topic cropping up repeatedly, don’t delay. Proactively letting people know that you’re aware of the situation and that you’re actively seeking more information shows you care about your customers and that you’re eager to respond to their feedback. The Internet never sleeps! Identify an escalation point for issues that arise during off-hours so that your official response isn’t delayed until regular office hours.
  • Be as transparent as possible. If you don’t have answers yet, just say so. Your customers are smart enough to recognize vague prevarication, and they’ll appreciate your honesty. When you’ve identified the problem, give a clear, understandable explanation of what went wrong and how you’re going to fix it.
  • If you’re at fault, apologize. A clear admission of responsibility and a commitment to resolve the issue will go a long way towards counteracting the negative publicity.
  • Don’t rely on traditional media to get the word out. Leverage the same tools your detractors used to get your story out there. Post about it in your corporate blog, tweet about it, and educate customer service reps on how to engage with your customers on social networking sites.

All companies hope they never have to deal with such backlash, but customer feedback – positive and negative – is valuable, and it’s critical to not just listen, but to act.

6 Responses to “Word of Mouth Damage Control: Are You Prepared?”

  1. Good advice Heather — I have forwarded this post to several friends in the incident management and response field.

    As you say, companies should be checking to make sure their plans include the latest channels of complaint and response, and an understanding of the new rules of transparency that come with them. Like them or not, those rules cannot be ignored because they are being imposed from the outside, by consumers.

  2. Good advice Heather — I have forwarded this post to several friends in the incident management and response field.

    As you say, companies should be checking to make sure their plans include the latest channels of complaint and response, and an understanding of the new rules of transparency that come with them. Like them or not, those rules cannot be ignored because they are being imposed from the outside, by consumers.

  3. Good advice Heather — I have forwarded this post to several friends in the incident management and response field.

    As you say, companies should be checking to make sure their plans include the latest channels of complaint and response, and an understanding of the new rules of transparency that come with them. Like them or not, those rules cannot be ignored because they are being imposed from the outside, by consumers.

  4. Good info! The best way to confront any negative press, is to respond ASAP with your own version of what happened and try to turn it into a positive. Any delay in response will most likely be construed as a guilty plea.

  5. Good info! The best way to confront any negative press, is to respond ASAP with your own version of what happened and try to turn it into a positive. Any delay in response will most likely be construed as a guilty plea.

  6. Good info! The best way to confront any negative press, is to respond ASAP with your own version of what happened and try to turn it into a positive. Any delay in response will most likely be construed as a guilty plea.

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