This past week was one in which the epiphanies about what social media can do to harm businesses just kept coming. And I'm not just talking about "United Breaks Guitars," which was the headline-making public relations nightmare of the week.
No, I'm talking about my Saga of the Lug Nuts, which underscored how ill-equipped small and medium-sized businesses are in coming to terms with how technology has changed their businesses, and how it can be used for ill or good.
Those of you who are connected to me on Facebook and Twitter might have some insight into what went on between a local car dealer/repair shop and me over the weekend. Suffice it to say that late in the day, after picking up my minivan from the repair shop on Friday, I heard a strange sound coming from the back. Turns out it was the kind of sound one hears when a tire has only two of five lug nuts left on it. Someone at the repair shop had failed to tighten the lug nuts, and the saga had begun.
By the time my husband and I discovered we had a problem, at roughly 7:30 on Friday night, not only was there no one home at the dealership (a fairly major one where we live), but there wasn't even a voicemail box or an emergency number to call.
There's always email, I thought! Well, not necessarily if you're a car dealership, in which case the only email address available on your Web site is one to the sales department, not for service.
As a car with only three properly attached tires is useless, I called the dealership the next day. It being a Saturday, I knew that the service office would be closed, but at least there would be warm bodies -- in the form of sales staff -- manning the dealership side of the business.
The voice on the other end expressed much concern and said he'd talk to the boss. An hour later, after no one called back, I called again. Another voice, also expressing concern. Since service was closed, he offered to put me into the voicemail box of the general manager of sales. I left a message. Forty-five minutes later, still no response.
I called again. This time, I talked to someone else, who explained that since he wasn't in service and service was closed, he couldn't help me. But I can't drive the car you guys "fixed" yesterday, I said. The woman who heads service would be in on Monday, he explained. "Is she reachable?" I asked. Of course, the answer was no. Well, these days, everyone's reachable, I said. He didn't have any contact info for her.
Meanwhile, time was ticking and the damage to their brand, in my view, was declining as rapidly as they didn't respond to my pleas to get someone out to our house to fix the car. He didn't get it.
I ended up back in the general manager's voicemail box, leaving another message -- this one, a lot less polite than the first. And then I tweeted about my experience, using the car dealer's name, and it was retweeted. Though it didn't reach the largest crowd in the history of Twitter -- far from it -- what's so stunning is that while it took the dealership 18 hours from my original email (which has still never been answered) to respond, it took me about one minute to damage their brand and distribute that message to more than 1,000 people. Though all of us know this is how it works, it's particularly powerful when you're the one at the controls.
Here's the weird part, though. Eventually, I began to feel really sorry for all of the people at the dealership that I encountered because they have to so little idea of how technology has changed their world, and thus are ill-equipped to manage it. That's why I haven't mentioned the dealer's name here, although a quick look at my tweetstream would reveal its name. I'm having some Twitter remorse.
After leaving that second voicemail, with the tire jerry-rigged in such a way I could make it to the local gas station, I took matters into my own hands. The local mechanic tightened what lug nuts there were and told me to go to Autozone and pick up some to replace what I'd lost.
As I was driving back home with my tires now completely secured, my cell phone rang. It was a guy from the dealership, who was at our house, ready to fix the tire. I'd already taken care of it, I told him. When, moments later, I drove onto our street, he was standing there sheepishly, embarrassed for the trouble the dealership had caused with its slow response time.
I told him -- kindly, I hope -- that there were some simple things he and his colleagues could do to ensure they were faster. For one, they could make it clear to their salespeople that consumer unrest toward their service department also hurts the dealership side of the business; sales staff should be trained to move on it when a customer is upset. I also suggested that perhaps making the service staff available by email would also help (if they answer email, that is). He looked down at his cell phone, and said, apologetically, "We tend to use these."
Our saga ends with a major rebate on the repair bill, which is a good thing. But that was more than two-and-a-half days after that first email. I came away realizing that, for the most part, the people at the dealership had their hearts in the right place, but that they haven't learned, among other things, how to let technology help them be in the right place at the right time. These people, and many like them, need our help.