Think Before You Post – an Open Letter to All Consumers

Dear Consumer,

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” Theodore Roosevelt. This is one of my favorite quotes – perhaps because I consider myself a constant creator and editor at heart. I was speaking with a reporter from MSNBC today, and we started talking about business ethics. As we explored what it means for businesses to be ethical, it made me think about the flip side of the coin – consumer ethics.

We as Consumers Have NEVER Had This Much Power

It is 1972 – you are watching a Television ad for a product you know sucks. What do you do? It ranges from nothing to telling your next door neighbor to perhaps yelling at the TV. Good luck. Today, you can call a toll-free number, post on Facebook or Twitter, write a blog post, leave a review on Amazon, and a million other things. We as consumers have never had it SO GOOD. We insist on businesses being ethical, as they should, but now that we have power, we must use it responsibly as well.

Please – Think Before You Act Online

Almost every week, I address a “reputation management” issue – businesses struggling to undo the harm some individual has caused. 80% of the time, the back lash is unjustified. Businesses sometimes spend millions of dollars undoing this damage. Why? Because one individual didn’t really think through the repercussions of their actions. It can seem like you are fighting a “corporation” – but every corporation is made up of human beings. And you are no longer a powerless individual fighting the “big man.” The playing field has been leveled.

I recently heard about one small business that filed bankruptcy due to one individual (an ex-employee’s boyfriend) consistently blasting them online. I consistently hear from authors who have their book sales destroyed due to a few negative reviewers. We have all heard stories about teenagers who have committed suicide due to online harassment. From teens to business owners – it affects us all.

It Doesn’t Mean you have to Settle

This doesn’t mean that if you have a legitimate concern, you can’t use the tools at your disposal. In fact, you should use them, but use them with care. I urge you to please think before you act online.

Go the Private Route First

The best way to handle a grievance is to talk to the person or company involved privately using the channels they provide. Before you blast someone on your blog, please give them a chance to resolve the issue amicably. For example, I just took a cruise with my husband to the Caribbean. We had a few problems with the cruise line so we talked to the guest relations department. They quickly smoothed things over. We were happy, and they were happy. Now, if I do share my experience with people – it will be the whole picture.

If You Do Decide to Post Online – Provide Value

If you do decide to post comments or critique someone online, wait until you are able to objectively view the situation. If you write in anger, you may come to regret it later. And, think about who you are writing this for. If you are writing as a way to vent, a personal diary may be much more suitable. If you are writing with the genuine intent of helping others (example – to warn them about the noise level of the rooms near the elevator), be sure to provide value. Luke-warm but specific feedback is much more helpful than a vague rant. If you are publishing something as pure revenge, think twice. Aside from legal ramifications, you may be harming your reputation more than you think.

Grace and Kindness Go a Long Way

Let’s face it. We all have our moments. Someone treats us badly or we feel sincerely ripped off. We want to lash out. It is human. But, when our actions are public and permanent (as all things on the net), the consequences can be harsh. If you must act online, do it with dignity and grace. It is so easy to be “anonymous” online – but behind every screen name is a real, living, breathing human being.

What Do you Think?

I feel very passionately about ethics – business and consumer. What do you think? Do you think that people are using the power of the internet with the care it warrants?

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  • Maria Reyes-McDavis

    Shama, this is absolutely brilliant. Love the angle you are taking on this, in educating not only consumers but businesses. With power comes great responsibility. Kudos!

    • Shama

      Thanks Maria! = ) Coming from someone who knows the online space so brilliantly – it means a lot.

  • Todd E. Jones

    As always, good advice Shama. It’s always good to get a peek on the “other side” of the situation. It is sobering to realize that 80% of the complaints are unjustified.

    • Shama

      Thanks Todd! = )

      Yes, cyber bullying has certainly taken a toll on all parties. Here is to hoping we can end it together using peaceful means.

  • Sabine McElrath

    Thanks for bringing this topic up in a very enlightening way.

    People are often quick to jump online to vent, without trying to resolve them through traditional channels first. I only posted one negative review about a local business, but that was only after several days of communicating with the owners through email to try to get the matter resolved.

    They were so arrogant in not admitting their mistake and refusing to refund $35 while all the while insisting it ‘wasn’t about the money,’ I had to document it and warn other potential customers.

    Sometimes it is a legitimate recourse, but as you mentioned, give the owner a chance to rectify any issues first!

    • Shama

      Hi Sabine,

      I am glad that you gave the owners a chance first. The power of social media is that we are all the media. The responsibility to educate others (as you did) and to treat people with fairness (again, as you did) falls on all our shoulders. Thank you for sharing!

  • Crystal Faremouth

    Shama, I feel like you are talking directly to me. I posted a letter on FB that I had written to the President regarding the company I worked which I have struggled with since June 2008. There have been multiple events that have not allowed me to put it behind me. These ongoing circumstances have ruined by health and livelihood. I’m treated as if I’m invisible or the bad “guy”. So if you are referring to me, I did exactly what you are advising. Since I have not gotten their attention I posted publicly as a last resort. Also, I bet there are so many people in my position who do not possess the skills and education to figure out that this same thing may be happening to them. If I can help someone else who is struggling then that makes my effort worth even more. For me it is not about money or greed, it is about being ethical, following the law, respecting the human element, and the corporate values that are posted on every wall, website, employee document etc…

    • Shama

      Hi Crystal,

      Just the fact that you are posting here is proof that you are not a callous reviewer out to hurt the company. You are clearly thinking about your actions – despite facing challenges. For this, I commend you.

      I hope that you are able to find some peace and resolution with your current issue. Thank you for taking the time to share your story so candidly.

  • Sital

    Great post Shama,completely agree.

    One further point to note is that we’re multi-faceted individuals.

    i.e. We’re not just consumers

    But also potential employees, freelancers, business owners, hiring managers, tenants, landlords, dating companions or even potential parents of adopted children.

    Every time we say or do anything online provides glimpse into your personality and character.

    So anything said in rage and anger at a company can come back and bite you in the butt at a later stage. No matter how justified the anger may be.

    And even if you’re raging anonymously, the law of karma eventually catches up with you.

    As you say, having some grace and class in the way you complain and make your point ensures a business doesn’t face problems unduly. And you don’t face problems further down the line because a moment of anger and frustration

    • Shama

      Hi Sital,

      An excellent point! We aren’t just consumers- we wear many hats, and karma rules all at the end of the day. Thank you for sharing your insightful thoughts.

  • Lisa

    I’m not in complete agreement with you. I spend a lot of time observing customer experiences and I’m always surprised how I difficult it is to do business with some companies. So, I think the number is more like 50/50 on whether complaints are justified or not.
    I think it’s like in Satisfaction: How Every Great Company Listens to the Voice of the Customer (J.D. Powers and Associates), over the years, companies through poor service have breed silent assassins (customers ready and willing to tell their negative experiences) and the Internet has just given them the forum.
    For all the money spent on advertising, branding, promotions, public relations, etc., there is a disconnect between a company’s mission statement says and how it actually behaves. Executing quality service consistently is something businesses large and small lack. And, it can be a “hit or miss” trying to resolve an issue regardless of how legitimate it is.
    Perhaps, both businesses and customers should pledge some sort of Business Hippocratic Oath to “First, do no harm.”

    • Shama

      Hi Lisa,

      No argument there. I think there are certainly businesses out there who have ignored their customers – and now the customers are revolting. Ah -revolution.= ) My main goal is to make sure that consumers are also thinking about their own behavior. I like the oath “First, do no harm.” It applies across the board.

  • Heather Villa

    Excellent post on a topic that is not addressed much.

    I think what we must keep in mind, as consumers, is that my bad experience with a company may not be the norm. Companies hire people and those people may not represent the company in the manner the company desires. But, the management may not even be aware of it.

    It’s not right to blast an entire organization for one person’s mistake.

    • Shama

      Heather –

      Another fine point. A single individual and a singular experience doesn’t mean the organization is rotten. Better to talk to management first.

  • Matt Redard

    Great points Shama. When we’ve been wronged our gut reaction is to lash out without regard to the consequences. The anonymity the internet provides makes this especially tempting. It comes down to who you are. When the heat is on, we are like tea bags – what’s inside comes flooding out. For better, or for worse.

    • Shama

      Matt – I love that analogy! Yes, trying circumstances do reveal the character within. Thank you for taking the time to share!

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  • Marc Wallis

    Good article – insightful commentary.

    When I am approaching a company’s service channels, I keep these things in mind: 1) yelling and arguing won’t solve anything, 2) the service desk person is usually not the decision maker or cause of the problem – treat them as an advocate and ask them to work with you to address your issue and 3) be clear about what you want, what you’d like them to do for you.

    As you suggest, the yelling and venting belong in a personal diary (even though it may feel better coming out in public) ;)