Southern politicians often have a homespun way of making a point. A few years ago a candidate in a small-town sheriff's election was overheard saying, "Criticize my drawl. You make me laugh. Criticize my views. You make me listen. But criticize my mama, and you're asking for a fight."
Militant customers come in various forms. Some appear with an ancient ax to grind. There are the bullies who are courageous only unidentified on the Internet. Then there are the ones seeking a platform for an extreme point of view.
When you or your business is the target of their irreverent, inappropriate and unfair poison, they can create major mayhem in the manner that they shape opinion. Were this a real neighborhood, their views would be discounted as the babblings of fools and carry zero credibility or influence.
But the anonymity afforded by the Internet removes the capacity for any sort of character check. And the toxic nature of some comments can do your business reputation damage. Sometimes the better part of valor is to simply ignore a caustic critique as too weird to respond to.
But there is a line stepped over when the comments extend to "criticize your mama" level. Some say Senator John Kerry lost the presidential bid against incumbent George Bush because he waited too long to comment on the allegations of a group of highly resourced Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The group of Vietnam vets, no doubt angered by Kerry's anti-war actions and testimony before Congress, asserted that the senator was less of a battle hero than he had claimed and had been grandstanding and exaggerating to pad a resume in preparation for a run for public office.
Kerry initially ignored the attack ads. By the time he finally spoke up, it was too late. The group had already tarnished -- beyond recovery -- his reputation as a man of integrity.
In operating a business, decide where the "criticize your mama" line will be andalso how quickly the "fire alarm" bell will provoke action.
What erroneous, ill-founded comments will erode the integrity of your brand? What do you hear standing in the grocery line when others see your name tag? Customers admire service providers who care enough about their reputation to fight the good fight. You cannot remain silent.
But fight fiction with facts. Meet hysteria with confidence. The more that customers witness your passion rather than your anger, the more your intervention will be viewed as a sign of marketplace character not as a defensive gesture trying to duck the spotlight.
Solicit friends and advocates to join the fight with you. Never assume the motive of your opponent.
This not a battle of reason. Focus instead on what you stand for and provide concrete examples of your stance. In today's wired world, delay allows the viral effect to spread like wildfire.
One hour in cyber-time is the equivalent of a month in snail-mail time. A speedy response is your friend in quelling the influence and reach of an adversary. It may be appropriate to use multiple channels.
The major snafu of the JetBlue plane sitting with a load of passengers on the tarmac for several hours triggered the company's use of emails and letters to key customers, ads in major newspapers and public appearances by senior leaders.
Every public relations channel was used to quell the sobering effect of a group of "customers from hell" seeking to bring down the airline quickly over a major misstep after years of trust-building.
If there is a kernel of truth in the mean-spirited missal being fired at your business, acknowledge it candidly and quickly. If any of the claims about Kerry had held a modicum of truth, he could have promptly stated, "I was a 26 year-old cocky lieutenant who wanted my share of the glory. However, there was nothing false about my being in harm's way in a heavily booby trapped war zone regardless of the medals it yielded."
He would have likely disarmed his opponents and been able to change the agenda from undeserved heroism in an unpopular war 35 years earlier to the present-day issues the campaign was supposed to be about. Candor and urgency are valued allies in the war against propaganda.
This piece is adapted in part from Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What to Do About It by Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson.