Commentary

Social Media And The Saga Of The Lug Nuts


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.

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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.

20 comments about "Social Media And The Saga Of The Lug Nuts".
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  1. Marc Oxborrow from McMurry, Inc., July 15, 2009 at 2:49 p.m.

    Your story is a useful reminder of how every part of an organization must focus on customer service, and of the power consumers now wield to quickly broadcast their experiences with merchants.

    But honestly, all this over 3 lug nuts? I'm the furthest thing from mechanically inclined, but even I can change a tire. Wouldn't it have been a better use of your energy to purchase and install the lug nuts yourself and take up the question of a billing adjustment when the service department reopened on Monday?

    While there's something to be said for holding vendors accountable, a little self-reliance comes in handy, too.

  2. Linda Lafianza from Van Duzer Vineyards, July 15, 2009 at 2:49 p.m.

    I believe automobile service is the elephant in the room for failing car companies, as your experience clearly shows.

  3. Swag Valance from Trash, Inc., July 15, 2009 at 3:15 p.m.

    Hooray to your dealer for sending employees home for the night and giving them the weekend off. I think we all would be happier in this world if we unplugged for a while and allowed many of the small businesses we deal with to do the same.

    If there was a mistake, I'd see if fixed. But I'd go out of business or have all my employees quit if I were to expect them to be at the 24x7 beck and call of squeaky wheel (no pun intended) customers.

    Some customers are worth firing. Anybody who blows up a social media storm and posts 15 paragraphs here about three lug nuts qualifies, in my book.

  4. Jonah Stein from ItsTheROI, July 15, 2009 at 3:25 p.m.

    A few years ago, my wife and I were badly treated by the sales team at Berkeley Toyota. As a former car salesman, I always try to treat salespeople with respect and give the dealer the benefit of the doubt. i even contacted the general manager and a representative from Toyota. None of them would even rise to an apology, leaving me with only one recourse --- blog about it.

    "Toyota of Berkeley Sucks - Caught Lying refused to sell car" has been the second result for a Google search for Berkeley Toyota ever since March of 2007. The page has over 5,000 views by now and I can only guess how many customers it has cost them. I imagine that is has cost them at least 50 or 100 sales.

    Customer service is essential in the age of the internet.

    http://www.measurement.com/Online_Marketing/berkeley-toyota-sucks

  5. Ken Freeman from AWS Creative Solutions, July 15, 2009 at 3:57 p.m.

    Your honest story says what we see serving social media needs for clients. Right now we are working with a client that in the top office, "we are ahead of last year!" However, all you have to do is Google their name, and theres 1 positive link to at least 40 - 50 extremely negative warnings about bad customer experiences. Check out the hash tag of this company and you find 5 - 10 "company' posted highlights and several hundred angry tweets and retweets. Even explaining this elephant in their room, the CEO and even the Marketing team don't get it. I commend you for bringing this experience and marketing insight to the front.

  6. Ellen Scordato from The Stonesong Press, LLC, July 15, 2009 at 4:25 p.m.

    Swag Valance said it pretty well.
    I'm sorry, but because customer service wasn't at your beck and call 24/7 you trashed the company? wtf?

    What you described was pretty easily fixable. Once you figured out the dealer service was unavailable, you could have gotten the lug nuts and had someone tighten them and not acted like a spoiled brat because no one could take care of you EXACTLY like you wanted to be taken care of.

    A commonly used trope for insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting diff results. When you realized the dealer's service was closed (and BTW it is OKAY for businesses to close once in a while!) and couldn't be reached by email you kept going back and back and back to the dealer looking for what wasn't there. You were totally disconnected to the reality that the dealership was closed, and no one wanted to talk to by email.

    They did have cell phones, of course, which last I heard, was still a viable means of real-time communication. That repairman in your driveway was probably sheepish because he was EMBARRASSED for you and your inability to deal with simple reality. You needed to find another workable solution but your brain was so stuck in the groove of "they must be responsive by email! they MUST because that's how I want it!"
    that you ran around in circles.

    You are nuts, and you need some time unplugged from the feeding tubes of email, facebook, and twitter. Seriously, your responses to this situation seem really crazy.

  7. Karen Renner from VML, July 15, 2009 at 4:31 p.m.

    What is fascinating is how a negative story like this one can quickly spread through the social media landscape.

    What if the reverse happened? Do you think you would have talked positively about the dealership on Twitter if they had offered superior customer service after the first call?

    I think another major challenge for all businesses (small, medium, and large) is being able to get consumers to have positive social conversations about them.

  8. Jennifer Beauman from Kerzner International, July 15, 2009 at 5:20 p.m.

    Seriously?! I'm all for harnessing Social Networks to empower the consumer (the "United Breaks Guitars" story is a perfect example of this), but this is ridiculous. Your article sounds more like a case of an unreasonable customer throwing a hissy fit than of poor customer service. I'm embarrassed for you.

  9. Brian Evans, July 15, 2009 at 5:35 p.m.

    I disagree with Swag Valance and Ellen Scordato. In todays world companies need to manage all aspects of their business. I am sure that Ms. Taylor was not expecting them to open their service center just for her. I am confident that she was expecting a response to one of her many phone calls. Had the manager responded to her call the issue could have most likely been resolved within just s few hours rather than days.

    Since the service team faild to complete the work that Ms. Taylor paid for and allowed her to leave in a very unsafe vehicle it seems only fair that they make every effort to resolve the issue. Even if the service department was closed it would not have been that much trouble for the dealership to have one of its employees drive over and fix the car. Another option would have been to pick up the cost of sending a service truck from a nearby service station. These two option only go to show that if they had responded to her thay could have solved the issue, kept Ms. taylor as a customer, avoided all this bad press, and maybe even received some kind words.

    There is also the "what if" question that remains to be asked. I, like everyone else does not do a routine check of my lug nuts prior to driving away. So what would the dealerships response time have been had Ms. Taylor's wheel come off and someone was hurt (or worse)? Thanksfully this did not happen. Although it very well could have, and I think that the amount of time and effort that the service team failed to put into the work that was done more than earned the bad press that they are receiving here.

  10. Cathy Taylor from MediaPost, July 15, 2009 at 6:02 p.m.

    Well, I feel I must respond to Ellen. Being called a spoiled brat does that to a girl;)

    Let me point out a few salient dynamics here, which you seem to have missed:

    First, this was their error. I would NEVER call someone and ask to be served over a weekend if it wasn't. It's not that I expect customer service to be at my beck and call -- let me call out Swag Valance on that one -- just there in certain situations, and this was one of them.

    Second, I was led to believe in my early calls that someone was going to help me out since I talked to actual people as this was going on. You weren't there, so you don't know, but I'm sure you would've had the same reaction if you were the person on my end of the calls.... so if insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, that's not what was happening here.

    I could go on, about how trepidacious I was to drive the car so that I could fix the situation, something that the guy at the service station backed me up on. He wasn't too wild about my doing so either. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the wheels falling off my car, especially with kids in it, which almost happened. That's why the best, safest solution was to have someone come by, and as you put it, do the easy fix.

    So, no. sorry to disappoint, but I'm not insane.

    Best,

    Cathy

  11. Cathy Taylor from MediaPost, July 15, 2009 at 6:03 p.m.

    Thanks for seeing my point Brian. I don't throw hissy fits over just anything.

  12. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., July 15, 2009 at 6:56 p.m.

    Here's my take: I'm the president of my company. If anyone was to go out and have to take care of a customer (client) on a weekend because of a mistake my company made, it would be ME. Yes, I would let all the employees, even the one who made the mistake, have their weekend of rest.

    That said, let's remember that this "mistake" was potentially life-threatening. If Cathy hadn't figured out what was wrong, or was hard of hearing, she could have DIED as a result of this mistake. So let's not minimize it and make her the ogre.

    At the same time, she now knows, as she has herself said, that creating a Twitter blast that was read by a thousand people might have been the equivalent of using an atom bomb to kill a flea. But that's only because everyone in her family had the good fortune not to die.

    As my Navy man father used to always say, "If the ship sinks, it's the Captain's fault. Doesn't matter if the third assistant steamfitter's mate failed to tighten a bulkhead bolt. It was the Captain's job to see to it that the third assistant steamfitter's mate tightened that bolt properly."

  13. Jose Ramos from Renew Financial, July 15, 2009 at 11:49 p.m.

    Wow, wouldn't we all love to be Ellen's customers?

    Cathy, I would have been pretty ticked off too. This could have ended up pretty ugly for you had those two lug nuts not held, and I agree with you letting the dealership have it when they clearly could have done more to help you.

  14. Cathy Taylor from MediaPost, July 16, 2009 at 10:14 a.m.

    Thanks Jose and Tim. I shouldn't have had to defend myself quite so much on this one, but when you write a column, sometimes you become a target.

    Let's just say I shudder every time I think about the fact that we took that car on the highway with one of my kids in it when we were driving back from the dealership. If that doesn't put this into context, frankly, I don't know what would. OK, I've said enough now.

    Best,

    Cathy

  15. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., July 16, 2009 at 11:22 a.m.

    By the way, Cathy, I don't know if this car has actual lug nuts or lug bolts, but it might be a good idea (1) for someone to check out all the fasteners currently on the wheel to make sure they are the proper grade and torque, and (2) if there are "studs," that none of the studs were permanently damaged by the earlier mistake. (Just an old automotive writer who can't let it die.)

  16. Ellen Scordato from The Stonesong Press, LLC, July 16, 2009 at 11:38 a.m.

    I sympathize with your horror at the danger of the situation. It was an extremely serious error that the dealership service made: a life-threatening one. I certainly would not minimize the danger or size of their error.

    Of course you can be angry that shoddy service put your family in danger. Who wouldn't be?

    But you were angry they didn't get back to you via email. That is the focus of the column.

    And you let us know how you got them back, but good, via access to tools they didn’t have or couldn’t use. And then you felt sorry for them because you are so much more powerful than they are.

    You didn’t have power over keeping your family safe, but you do have power in the twitter community.

    But I still think that kind of revenge-based pleasure when your need for instant feedback isn't gratified is a pretty crazy way to go thru life.

    Sometimes people behave poorly and make mistakes. Sometimes they don't get back to us when and how we want them to, and instant feedback doesn't always happen. Those are two different issues, and your column was about your anger and revenge over the second, not the first.

    Seriously, thank goodness your family is safe. I will still look forward to your columns.

  17. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., July 16, 2009 at 1:12 p.m.

    One final thought: Perhaps all this will be an object lesson for the dealership, and they will implement a system whereby a customer with a potentially life-threatening situation can reach someone with ability and power to act after hours or on weekends and holidays.

  18. Nicholas Fiekowsky from (personal opinion), July 16, 2009 at 5:35 p.m.

    Ellen's story confirms that the customer service / reputation game has changed. Her key disappointment is that the dealership consistently broke its promises:

    a) That they would repair her van and return it in serviceable condition. (Friday)

    b) That they would get back to her in order to correct problem (a). (about 3 times on Saturday)

    The dealership could get away with broken promises in the old days because, "There's a sucker born every minute." If a business serves an individual poorly, there are hundreds more waiting in line at the door. And they don't know about the broken promises.

    Now the dealership has to raise its game. Those hundreds who were standing in line will walk away because social media informs them that the dealership does not keep its promises.

  19. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 16, 2009 at 6:31 p.m.

    Sure, changes are a comin', but your need for immediate gratification needs to take a back seat. This is not an excuse for the dealership not taking action when they were apprised of the situation on a weekend. YOU call AAA or a back up YOU make sure that YOU have a plan B just in case of emergencies. This is your responsibility. When the dealership opens on Monday and the owner is availble, go directly to the source. If you are compensated (including a discussion with the lack employee present and his/her paycheck reflecting stupidity), then move on. Bad things like this will happen again somewhere else and to other people. It's not about being right; it's about doing it right.

  20. Cathy Taylor from MediaPost, July 16, 2009 at 7:10 p.m.

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for your further comments. On the issue of them just having someone available in a situation such as mine...yes, that would be reasonable. It's not like the thing has to be open 24/7, or that customers need to have the mechanic's cell phone numbers or anything. Than anyone would call, for any reason, and that's not the point.

    And, on your concern about the car itself, actually, having the appropriate lug nuts was part of the concern of having someone else do the work, since we obviously didn't have as many lug nuts as we needed by the time we realized there was a problem. They were on a roadside somewhere.

    I felt relatively confident that I'd gotten the right thing at Autozone, but still wondered. And the dealer -- and this is why i say their hearts were definitely in the right place -- insisted on checking the tires on Monday morning. But thanks.

    Cathy

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