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Organizations, be very afraid of social media

Once upon a time, businesses could get away with being bad to customers. They could neglect them and abuse them and not face any real consequences. What could a customer do in that world, anyway? Throw a fit on the company premises? Only a few employees, and possibly a handful of other customers, would observe it.

What else could the unhappy customer do? Go and tell a few friends and family about the bad incident? Go to the trouble of writing a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, and hope it got published? No, businesses didn’t really face any consequences to bad behaviour, because the fallout could be contained.

A few years ago, the Daily Nation started the “Cutting Edge” column which became very popular very fast. It published, amongst other titbits, complaints by customers. Companies, realizing that this bad news would now be read by many more people every day, began taking this column very seriously. They deployed Corporate Communications departments to respond to complaints quickly and decisively.

Consumers also cottoned on to the fact that the way to get a complaint resolved was to have it published in the famous column, because that was where the company’s CEO would read about it and summon managers to minimize the damage to company reputation. But it was only one small daily column, and many thousands of complaints would never get published.

Fast forward to today. In case you haven’t noticed, there is something called social media. It includes Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and Google+. These networks have users in the hundreds of millions. Everyone is connected to everyone else. It costs next to nothing to connect. All you need is a simple mobile phone – not even a computer.

Kenyan CEOs, start paying attention here.

If someone ‘tweets’ a complaint about your organization, it may reach perhaps a few dozen “followers” of that person. Some of those followers will “retweet” it to their followers. Somewhere along the line, an “influential” follower, one with hundreds or even thousands of followers, will come into the net. Once this follower retweets the complaint, it will reach other influencers, with thousands more followers at their disposal.

Within minutes, your customer’s complaint could be on the screens of tens of thousands of Kenyans, and many more overseas.

Are you getting worried yet? You should be. If your company is a serial abuser of customers and attracts many complaints and influential complainers, a single morning can wreak untold damage to your corporate reputation. Not just text, but photos and videos taken on smartphones can go “viral” instantly.

A consumer revolution is coming in Kenya, and social media will be the weapon of choice. Anyone who is unhappy about your product, your service or your staff can tell thousands of people about it. All your grand rebranding and fancy advertising can be negated overnight. Some noted Kenyan companies are taking a serious reputation-battering every day. The consequences to leadership teams will follow.

What should your company do? The obvious thing is to have a social media presence, to enter the conversation about your organization quickly, calm the waters, make amends, address the problem before it goes viral.

The even better thing is to run an organization that cherishes its customers. If your customers love you, no one can harm you. If your customers merely tolerate you, social media places a potentially deadly weapon in every pocket. If you are a leader, it is really time to take a very personal interest in what your customers feel about your organization. It is time to check which of your practices annoy your customers the most.

Organizations with happy customers have little to fear. Those with customers on the edge of the tolerance zone should be very afraid. That customer walking out in anger now knows what to do.

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