An example of why addressing customer complaints in the age of social media is vital to your business.
In today’s social media driven world, customer service is key to positive word-of-mouth, no matter the size of your chain or the scope of the complaint. If you doubt the seriousness of addressing customer complaints in a timely and serious manner, look no further than the ballooning battle cry of parents around the cleanliness and safety of McDonald’s playground equipment that has the company battling a hailstorm of negative publicity.
Yes, even a QSR giant like McDonald’s is not immune to missteps in today’s consumer-driven and social media savvy environment where customers around the world can ban together in a matter of minutes, all with the help of the Internet. The chain is proof that regardless of your clout as a business, how you handle customer complaints will determine whether the situation will be calmly resolved or potentially blowup in your face.
What’s now a social media nightmare for McDonald’s, began as a single, manageable customer complaint. Chandler, Ariz. resident Dr. Erin Carr-Jordan, a mother of four, a professor at Arizona State University and a McDonald’s customer, was dismayed to discover filthy playground equipment at a local McDonald’s back in April 2011. She alerted a manager, and returned four weeks later to find nothing had been cleaned. This time she took a video, which shows blood, Bandaids and feces as well as broken equipment. She also gathered swabs from the equipment and had lab tests done that allegedly show dangerous bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant Staph or MRSA, known to cause potentially life-threatening infections.
She put the video on YouTube alerting parents to the issue and urging them to wipe their children’s hands with hand sanitizer before eating at the establishment. She said she left her name and number for managers with a note on the test results.
When she went on vacation with her family a short time later, she discovered more playgrounds that were unsanitary, and she began to do more research, lab tests and video posts. Her story made it onto the evening news and onto the front page of newspapers.
But it wasn’t until this Monday, Oct. 24, when Carr-Jordan received a letter from a local McDonald’s franchisee’s attorney stating that she is no longer allowed in any of his McDonald’s restaurants that have playgrounds, that McDonald’s problems really started.
Carr-Jordan is now banned from a total of eight sites in Gilbert, Chandler and Phoenix, Ariz. “Rather than have someone come into the playgrounds and do the right thing and make them clean and safe, they told me not to come in anymore,” Carr-Jordan told national news stations.
A McDonald’s spokesperson explained the legal action prohibiting Carr-Jordan from entering the restaurants to news stations: “…..recent actions by Dr. Carr-Jordan have become disruptive to the employees and customers within our franchisee’s restaurants.” McDonald’s also stated it was committed to addressing Carr-Jordan’s concerns and reviewing her findings. Maybe 10 years ago, such tactics would have been enough. But in 2011, in an age of iPhones and social media, McDonald’s response has only inspired an outpouring of customers to rally behind Carr-Jordan’s cause.
In the five days that followed, Carr-Jordan watched her Facebook friend base more than double, her Twitter feed quadrupled and she opened her inbox Thursday to find 700 new emails from supportive parents rallying for her cause. Many people are contacting her Web page asking about information and legislation, and contacting their representatives demanding action. “Now I have parents in other parts of the country and all over the world that are contacting me, saying, “Hey, I’m not banned from McDonald’s, if you have swabs or you want me to take video of playgrounds I am happy to do it,” she said.
In other words, by failing to show Carr-Jordan that it was taking concrete steps to quickly address the issue, McDonald’s problem has now multiplied. While Carr-Jordan said she has been in contact with the director of operations at McDonalds on a regular basis, and McDonald’s has assured her it has been reviewing its policy, “the problem is they’re not doing anything. We just keep having the same conversation,” she said.
What could the chain have done differently to avoid the mass media attention?
“Their original response should have been and should still be, ‘Thank you for bringing to our attention that there is something wrong here either in the application or the protocol itself or the lack thereof. And we are addressing it. We care about children and this is how we are correcting the problem,” Carr-Jordan said. “They could not have handled this particular situation any worse.”
Now instead of one angry mom, McDonald’s is facing a firestorm from enraged parents across the globe. And where in April the request was “Please clean this local playground,” it’s now going to take a lot more to silence the outcry. “They need to implement corporate-wide policies that have regular, thorough and verifiable cleaning and disinfecting maintenance,” she said.
The takeaway? Manage those complaints early and work to fix any problems that arise.
This is especially important because customers who have had a negative experience at an establishment are likely to tell twice as many people about that experience as those that had a positive encounter, noted Jim Callahan, who has more than 40 years of experience as a convenience store and petroleum marketer. In fact, Carr-Jordan noted there are many restaurants and organizations with playgrounds that are clean and have proper protocols in place. But those aren’t the sites she’s sharing videos of on YouTube or the evening news.
Carr-Jordan is not waiting for McDonald’s to fix the problem. She wrote the Kids Play Safe Bill, which amends current public health code and playground safety standards. Illinois and California are already sponsoring the bill, which is expected to be up for a vote in January.
The bill could even impact some convenience stores. “There are a few c-stores that have playlands now, so they would most certainly fall under the regulation that I’ve written, and they would fall under the same regulations I’m asking McDonald’s to implement,” she noted.
Hopefully, c-stores will have learned from McDonald’s and be ready to respond in a way that calms rather than escalates the problem. An international entity like McDonald’s will surely recover from the negative publicity, but a small c-store chain might not be so lucky if they find themselves in a similar situation.
For more on why managing customer complaints quickly and effectively in today’s social marketing environment is crucial to your business, check out Jim Callahan’s Convenience Store Solutions blog on p. 20 of CSD’s November issue.