When Heather Armstrong‘s Whirpool washing machine broke down, she was yet another stay-at-home mom with an appliance problem. That is, until she logged onto her Twitter account, where over 1 million people have registered to follow each and every of her 140-character-or-less tweets.
Armstrong has run her popular blog, Dooce, since 2001, when she began writing about the single life and trappings of a real world job. But Armstrong’s popularity ramped up considerably after marrying and having two daughters, to the point where dooce.com has become an easy way for family-friendly advertisers to reach tech-savvy women with buying power via the Internet.
So when Armstrong began advising her legions of Twitter followers against buying Maytag last week, it was a matter of hours before both Whirlpool Corp (they own Maytag) and The Home Depot‘s Twitter accounts were trying to contact her through responding tweets and phone calls.
Interestingly, by the end of the incident, Bosch, an uninvolved, competing appliance company ended up donating a washing machine and dryer to a shelter in Salt Lake City at Armstrong’s request.
Bosch Appliances, not Whirlpool, ended up donating appliances after the Twitter incident.
That’s when the focus of the story switches to Whirlpool and Bosch. Because Armstrong used her Twittersphere influence to complain about her Maytag machine, Jeff Piraino, manager of Whirpool’s executive offices in Michigan, phoned Armstrong himself to coordinate the arrival of a new repairman (and yes, the machine got fixed). Through relatively little effort, the company was able to fix a problem with a blogger with potential to turn her readership’s buying power elsewhere – all this took was a tweet and a few phone calls to get back into Armstrong’s good graces.
In an age where tweeting is rapidly becoming the new word-of-mouth advertising, this public response should be considered a victory on Whirlpool’s part. Intriguing though, is Bosch’s position in the situation. Although Armstrong could have accepted the washer and dryer Bosch offered as a remedy to her broken Maytag model, she suggested they donate the appliances to a shelter. It was a good move by Bosch, which garnered the company attention without even having to remedy what was ultimately a problematic appliance complaint. You could ask, did they have an option at that point? In any case, the potential backlash against Armstrong for receiving special attention was neutralized, Whirlpool made an important customer happy, and another appliance corporation received a bit of buzz in the blogosphere for getting involved.
This all begs the question of whether or not this “problem” was a product of companies not quite knowing how to interact with customers through social media. Are corporations going to battle it out when a well-placed tweet endangers a brand reputation? Washing machines fail. It’s a fact. And even if the customer happens to be a popular Internet figure, the truth is that there are hundreds of other people on the hotline waiting to hear word about their own appliances. Since the solution took relatively little effort – especially on Whirlpool’s part – the situation was cleaned up nicely.
Ultimately, the responsibility of those in charge of maintaining a brand image comes in picking and choosing whether or not a consumer complaint has enough strength to be damaging. In reality, many of such complaints rarely have a lasting impact, even if placed by someone like Armstrong.
So if handling complaints through the traditional methods still seems to work, why is the company’s Twitter account manager getting involved?
Branding through social media is a relatively new concept, and we can see how the dooce/Whirlpool/Bosch situation emphasizes the point that no one really knows what the solution is to handling unhappy consumers through Web-based applications. The trick is to recognize potential volatility of dealing with an angry, albeit influential, customer through social media applications. In many cases, a solution will not be as urgently needed as it might seem. Knowing what you are “listening to” in social media becomes vitally relevant.