On Friday, customer Ee-Lyn Law posted a feedback comment on the pastry shop’s Facebook wall complaining of being treated poorly by the shop’s service staff and suggesting that the store label its confections if staff members were annoyed by repeat enquiries.
The shop’s official response to her comment was: "If you have so much complaint… Please buy your desserts in Paris! You will see more attitudes… It will really KILL me to have the kind of customers like this!" [sic]
After which the Facebook page manager deleted the comment. Unfortunately for LDG, the a friend of Law had taken a screen-shot of her comment and the shop’s reply and Law reposted it, asking why they had taken down a valid complaint.
She was then told, “We have no time for bitches.”
The rest of the weekend was a freefall into social-media crisis. From 31 shares, the post has escalated to more than 2,700 shares, and customers have thronged to LDG’s Facebook page to express their displeasure.
By late Sunday the shop had capitulated and posted an apology:
Although Campaign Asia-Pacific has been unable to reach LDG’s founder and owner, Ben Yeong, via email or mobile, research has indicated that it was probably Yeong himself who was handling the Facebook page. Sources have described Yeong as unable to handle criticism.
"If you know you’ve got a bad attitude why go social at all?” questioned Tan Rahman, head of digital for OMD Hong Kong. While for many a social-media presence is necessary, it depends on objectives and if you have the resources to appropriately achieve them, he added.
Yet while it's understandable that a business owner would take critiques personally, "layering PR teams in between owners and customers is a cop-out", commented Kelvin Lim, digital strategist, Burson-Marsteller Malaysia. "Owners need to have a much greater respect of the platform they are trying to profit from, and accept that the collective online voice is just as powerful in destroying brand reputation as it is in building it."
While the owner could consider social-media training, what he really needs to do is learn restraint, added Rahman. “Take a deep breath, think and wait until you’ve cooled down before you respond to a customer complaint.”
This isn’t the first time a Malaysian company has failed spectacularly on social media, noted Nahri Salim, associate director at Cohn & Wolfe XPR. Organisations both big and small, and the government, have suffered from “serious lapses in judgement on social-media platforms,” and should pay closer attention to social-media management, he said.
“Organisations must appreciate that there simply never was a time when Facebook management could be left to the 'intern' or any other untrained individual to begin with, and structure to social-media engagement is often the thin line which protects their brands from negative repercussions from the community,” Salim said.
Lim believes that the continued string of social-media mishaps faced by Malaysian companies is driven by a "widening disconnect between Malaysian customers, who are increasingly maturing in terms of adoption sophistication and expectations, and with the attitudes of business owners", as illustrated by a recent response column by a Malaysian chef. Stress, Lim said, is not a "free pass to give genuinely appalling responses to an otherwise manageable situation."
What can be done?
Even when businesses have sinned this badly, they shouldn't give up hope and stop trying to make amends, said Salim. "Businesses should not underestimate the ability of social-media communities to forgive businesses that demonstrate a genuine desire to make amends," he said.
Salim's colleague, associate director Jonathan Tan, however, cautions brands that social-media communities "are not fools and will see through pretension". The best way to regain faith is to consistently deliver from now on, he said.
It is the sense of insincerity perhaps that has prevented LDG's apology from going over well. "The most elegant way out of this situation is to start with a personal apology from the owner, and one that’s genuine," said Lim. "Finger pointing, however flailing, must ultimately lead back to the business owner, and it’s their responsibility to train and set policies in place.
Rahman advises "leaving it alone" after an apology has been made. "What the owner can really do to fix this moving forward, is to consider the damage his attitude does to his business and perhaps follow the old adage that works well for shop owners, ‘The customer is always right’."
Updated with additional recommendations from experts:
Biresh Vrajlal, managing director, reputation management, Mercatus+
"If it is true that the post was written by a members of staff, then sack them. Give a free macaroon and tea day, the owner himself should be there to apologise, only then will people feel his sincerity. That's my personal opinion. Calling customers who provide feedback bitches is just plain wrong. It took a whole weekend of bad behaviour and rudeness before he apologised to something that should not have happened, it is understandable that people do not accept it. In business never be nasty, for that is not our culture. Humility goes a long way, so get what you want nicely. Many brands have successfully grown their business using social media, none of them called their customers bitches. When customers give feedback, we should be happy, because they care enough to take the time to do so, why else would they do it? Because they love your brand, relish in it, enjoy it, take it constructively and do better, improve and I guarantee, customers will love and respect you for it, the word of mouth from that, only helps your business and bottomline."
Ben Israel, director, digital strategy at Edelman Asia-Pacific
"It’s interesting how we’ve seen several cases of this now, where even after a formal apology the outrage does not cease. Sadly, just like this example, most apologies sound like they came from the lawyer’s office and is usually quickly dismissed by customers as unauthentic. In fact, going back to where we started, an apology is the best opportunity to be personal. Tone down the legal speak, be quick to recognize your mistake and don’t sign off with 'The Management'."
Nicholas Chhan, digital director, Maxus Hong Kong
"As this is an extreme case, the ol' reliable apology letter will not work. To show commitment: fire the staff involved, apologise personally to the customer (Ee-Lyn) by moving forward with her logical suggestion for the store to put labels, and give her some store vouchers – something significant like free 50kg of Macaroons. While it's true that in every service industry, we meet some very nasty customers. However, in no way should we use a swear word at them, punch their face, or spit in their food. There is a border line ethics that we adhere too, a moral code."
Updated at 5pm on March 25 to include a response from Ee-Lyn Law