Why I’m Tired of #Fail

We use the word “FAIL” with such abandon today – even with a taste of vindictive enthusiasm – and often in the instant someone or something rubs us the wrong way, most especially a business.

We have microscopic levels of patience that match the brevity of our status updates, making showpieces out of brands’ missteps, sometimes deserved and sometimes incredibly petty and reactionary.

There are most certainly failures of customer service, product, and corporate responsibility that are egregious, and I’m not talking about those. But the focus on those problems that ARE “epic” is diluted in the sea of flippant verbal retribution that’s leveled at companies simply because we have a mobile app at our fingertips and a moment of frustration.

When was the last time you simply asked a company for help instead of impaling their head on a virtual Twitter stake for all to fear? Used their Facebook wall to lodge a level-headed complaint or inquiry that gives them an opportunity to be helpful instead of on the defensive out of the gate?

What’s our role in helping companies improve based on crafting our feedback with the same care and attention we’d want the companies to demonstrate to us as customers? In other words, if we want them to listen, perhaps we need to be conscious of putting better and more useful information out there for them to find.

As advocates of the very technologies and ideas that we’re asking companies to use, we need to deliver input that’s relevant and conducive to companies’ identifying and addressing the problems we have, even when that input is negative. Fixing a problem requires understanding the cause. Sometimes, an individual mistake or bad judgment call by a customer service employee is just that, and we need to differentiate between inconvenient and unfortunate incidents by companies and recurring problems that are systemic.

Is It Just Us?

My friend Tom Webster said in our Twitter conversation on this topic: “The 10% who create content don’t speak for the other 90%.”

Point being that our online fishbowl illustrates this tendency more so than the rest of the universe, and that most people express their frustration differently, if at all. This is true. But businesses are watching, paying attention to us, the squeaky wheel brigade. Partially because we’ve told them they have to, partially because there are good businesses out there that care and want to demonstrate that they’re paying attention. And there’s a very real sense that the 10% will become proportionally more significant as time goes by.

One reason we have a credibility problem in this space is the carelessness with which we sometimes wield the very tools we’d like companies to adopt and value. We want them to be thoughtful and responsible but as individuals, we lash out at everything that doesn’t suit our fancy. And we wonder why companies are reticent and reluctant to jump in with both feet?

I’m all for demanding a high standard of service, for insisting that brand promises get fulfilled, for returning value in exchange for the money that we as consumers invest in a business. That is, to me, utterly without question.

But when there are shortcomings, we need some critical thinking around the threshold between a mistake and an epidemic. I wish we’d think a bit more about how we express our concerns if we’re serious about a business hearing us, understanding the underlying issue, and responding. Temperance still has a place in the business world, and can still get things done.

We talk personally of embracing failure as a learning experience, but we so easily brandish the scarlet letters of #FAIL for others. Do we love watching things burn so much that our best and most valuable contribution is to help toss another match?

I’m curious about whether you feel this, too. What am I missing? When do you feel compelled to cry fail? Sound off in the comments.

  • http://twitter.com/NoelFisher Noël Fisher

    Wait, so is you receive poor service or are unhappy with a product, you should just keep your mouth shut? What about giving the company a chance to turn around your experience? What about providing accurate feedback? As marketers, we know that accurate feedback is worth its weight in gold, even if it’s negative. Companies providing a service are striving to do things right the first time, every time. So, do they benefit more by knowing when they fail to do thinsg right, or by those of use who receive poor service never say a word about it to them?
    A complaint is an opportunity to respond. It is a second chance to give that customer great service. If you shrug them off as a spoiled child, you’re only hurting yourself. Companies that rpovide consistent, hig quality service aren’t spoiling their customers, and their customers aren’t spoiled to expect a high quality service from that company.

  • http://twitter.com/NoelFisher Noël Fisher

    I completely agree. Spare the rod, spoil the child. Spare the negative feedback, spoil the company into thinking everything it’s doing is just fine.
    The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

  • http://twitter.com/NoelFisher Noël Fisher

    I agree. These expressed disappointments, no matter how minor, are vaild. And it provides valuable feedback to the companies.

  • http://twitter.com/NoelFisher Noël Fisher

    but it’s a slippery slope. How much patience are we expected to have before we’re just getting poor service and not saying anything about it? Why am I having to wait that extra time for soy milk? Are they all out? Do they not have enough baristas working to accommodate the rush? Did they mess up on someone else’s order and now they have to fix it? All of these situations could have been prevented, and can be prevented in the future, but only if the company is made aware of it. Taking on the attitude of “Well, there’s nothing anyone can do about it” falls short of good customer service.

    Sparing companies the #fail is like little league games where no one loses- it means no one wins, either. We can’t be afraid to dish otu criticism.

  • http://twitter.com/NoelFisher Noël Fisher

    but a company wants to please its customers, that’s why they’re in business. They’re not in business to have their customers please them. So, wouldn’t the business want to know if their customers aren’t pleased?

  • Unpaid Customer

    You do have a point, but one of your statements equates completely different situations. You suggest that WE ought to put as much time and effort into providing a company information to fix a problem as we expect THEM to put into resolving it. This is patently unfair. Why? The company gets our money: that’s their reward for the time and effort we expect them to put into fixing problems. I don’t get paid for taking time to educate their stupid customer service reps. If I did, I wouldn’t get so annoyed. So, to expect me, with no reward, to put in the same effort I expect from someone who is being rewarded, is patently unfair.

  • http://twitter.com/guyma Guy Martin

    Great post Amber – interestingly, I finally caught up on my reading and read this plus my colleague Gunnar Hellekson’s commentary on how #fail is being applied too liberally to work going on to help government use these tools (ostensibly a much more difficult ‘openness’ nut to crack than businesses).

    http://onepeople.org/node/2348

    Maybe as one of your commenters pointed out this is a generational issue, but, as I mentioned in my comment to Gunnar’s post, governments (and businesses) are made up of *people*, and I don’t care how old you are, people don’t like to be called out for a perceived failure if they aren’t given the opportunity to fix the problem.

    Thanks for your post.

  • Anonymous

    Being a nerd (#FAIL!), I just spent 15 minutes scoring the #fail channel on Twitter. So I can now respond to your article with some authority. I counted up cases of #FAIL in several categories (which I made up as I went along). The categories I ended up with are:

    Observation: statement about something neutral (like weather), using #FAIL for brevity (4)
    Humor: joking around, using #FAIL as punctuation (3)
    Self: announcing your own silliness, inadequacies, and mistakes (6)
    Vindictive: the case considered in the post, “unhappy with company, so I tweet” (7)
    Debate: ongoing discussion, e.g. politics, expressing “I don’t like this” (7)
    Personal: pointed remark at or about someone (1)

    So the “bypass customer support” group is one of the largest, but right up there with “neutral expression” and “self deprecation.” I guess this supports the “culture shift” notion: I #FAIL, you #FAIL, companies #FAIL, all at about the same rate.

  • Anonymous

    I suppose it’s now a fair question: do we really want to be part of a society that tosses #FAILure around so freely?

  • http://www.jaffydesigns.com/blog Jason

    Nice one!

    I agree that we’re definitely on the cusp of the squeaky-wheel customer era, where there’s a myth starting to sink in with the general public that they can sound off about their grievances (real and imagined) in social media, and that brands will automatically back down for fear of negative press.

    And right now, they’re mostly right – there’s a knee-jerk fear among brands that they have to keep everyone happy, or else instantly take interactions with plaintiffs offline, but I feel all that’s doing is reinforcing this bad customer behavior. Over time, though, some brands will develop the courage to push back, and deal with their unhappy customers out in the open – which will have interesting social ramifications for those unreasonable customers who gripe just for the sake of it. In some cases, the brand itself may not have to respond at all – their customer community will self-regulate, if they’re passionate enough.

    As for me personally, I typically 1) decide whether the Fail is worth complaining about, or an isolated incident, then 2) try to take it up in the traditional customer service channels, then 3) use social media if I can’t get a timely/satisfactory/reasonable response. I try to be good with it – using it as a kludge will only come back to haunt you.

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  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Ironically, my reaction is: “The 10% who create content don’t speak for the other 90%.” The people who agree with you on #fail don’t speak for everyone else who either A) Dig it B) Don’t know what it means or C) Don’t care.

  • http://twitter.com/AlegentHealth AlegentHealth

    I believe that it’s simply easier for people to complain in these social spaces. They can vent to the anonymous abyss that is the internet without actually having to confront someone face-to-face. I read a similar post recently – though rather than looking at how people attack brands (i.e. #Fail), the blogger challenged the whole FML concept with LML. Rather than complain about what you dislike in your life – why not make note of what you love – or even like – about your life: http://www.operationnice.com/2010/08/nice-assignment-lml.html

    It would be nice to see a movement in a similar direction to challenge people to post when a company excels at customer service – who knows, maybe #SUCCESS could catch on??

  • http://missyward.com missyward

    I had a similar conversation with a friend of mine just the other day after watching someone complain incessantly on Twitter over pretty much *everything* that happens in their day. (Beating up Starbucks for the line she had to wait on for her coffee; blaming the city government for the damage the speed bumps are doing to the front of her car, etc. You get the picture.)

    I called her out on it saying that she’s getting to be like the old man on the block yelling at the kids to get off his front lawn.

    Her response was that if she didn’t complain, that the companies wouldn’t do anything about it.

    I get her point, but I also asked her to tell me when the last time she actually contacted a company to tell them about the good experience she had with them.

    Alas… “never”, was her response.

    I think that we are molded very young to only respond to negative feedback. For instance, you’d turn in a paper and if you received a “D”, you’d get red marks and comments all over the paper pointing out all of the shortcomings and mistakes. But, if you received an “A”… that’s all you got on the paper. No red marks, no feedback.

    Children should be taught very early on that none of us are perfect, but that our role on this planet is to strive to be the best that we can be and help others do the same.

    Phrasing suggestions, recommendations, ideas and thoughts that turn them into something useful for all involved is a much better solution than #Fail.

  • http://twitter.com/justinEMIG Justin Emig

    I think that the emergence of #Fail shows the negative tendencies that surround everyday life. Every week, one of the “most viewed videos” on YouTube involves someone doing something that could be considered #Fail. Every week, i receive emails from friends and colleagues outlining someone’s next #Fail. As apparent in our nightly news and top CNN stories, #Fail sells. Unfortunate as it may be, this has to correlate over to business. The negativity of “disgruntled” customers sounding off on a company’s twitter or facebook page does nothing but further blacken the eye upper management has in most major corporations as it pertains to social media. This will do nothing but further setback the growth of social media as a forum for businesses to become transparent and provide a perfect medium for handling disputes.

  • http://twitter.com/justinEMIG Justin Emig

    Great points Michelle and Amber. I feel another point has to be brought up and it is perception. What might be considered to be a major #failure in one instance isn’t perceived to be as negative with another. Customers all perceive things different and especially as it pertains to online content as you are missing the all to valuable “human emotion” to correlate a sense of feeling. companies must take a proactive approach but also accept their failures and remain transparent. Those who admit defeat early and rectify the issue, while being transparent in the existence of a problem, will gain the trust of customers. This allows customers to become confident if a similar issue erupts directly relative to them, it will be resolved quickly and effortlessly. Just my opinion. but awesome insight and points from both of you on this matter

  • Katenonymous

    I’ve never used #fail, but I have turned to Facebook and Twitter when I’ve had bad experiences with companies. Here’s the thing: those experiences have to be BAD. My first step is always to call or e-mail customer service, and most of the time that works. But sometimes it doesn’t. And by that, I mean that the rep told me they’d closed my account, but didn’t, and I wound up in collection–at which point I called the company, was hung up on, and was insulted by the “manager” with whom I finally spoke.

    Another case was when a company was supposed to connect a service after our move, failed to get the order right, failed to return phone calls, bounced me from one office to another, left me on hold for an hour, told me that they couldn’t fix it for another week, sent the wrong equipment, etc. (That was all one incident.)

    So when repeated efforts on my part are ignored by the company, yes, I will try another tactic. But I don’t bring out the big guns until I have to. In both those instances, I turned to social media when other methods of resolving the problem were unsuccessful, and in both instances I got results. But I always start with civil interaction.

  • http://mab397.com Mandi

    My favourite example at the moment involves the Apple fanboi’s who lined up for up to 6 hours for a new iPhone4 but expected our telcos to process the paperwork immediately. Apple was praised as per usual and the telcos were branded with the belligerent hashtag you mention here, despite being utterly overwhelmed due to the successful marketing tactics of a third party.
    I’ve noticed some people have taken to “testing” their service providers by purposely dropping @ symbols and spelling the brand name incorrectly, admitting as much in tweets before and after their whinging. How are we supposed to expect quality service while we contribute to useless noise?

  • http://twitter.com/webby2001 Tom Webster

    10% of me agrees with 90% of what you said there.

  • http://www.ForeclosureIndustry.com Christine Springer

    I just wrote a post about this a couple of weeks ago, called “Don’t Tweet When You’re Mad.” A client made a comment on Twitter that was negative instead of picking up the phone and calling me. All I can say is “Amen.” Thanks.

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  • http://www.katebrodock.com Kate Brodock

    Amber, great thoughts. I’ve written a couple times on this subject (http://bit.ly/9wxFol), because I really think we as users need to think a lot more about our actions, both in terms of what we’re demanding of the brands we’re interacting with and in terms of how “simple” it is to have a voice.

  • Anonymous

    Amber,I think because we’ve entered an age where SMS is pretty much ruling the roost, people talk very bluntly now. It’s people being more ballsy since they still think they can pretty much fly under the radar online (but they can’t!) using words like “#fail” and “suck” to express their disenchantment with brands and companies. I gave a presentation a year ago about how we’ve entered the age of “blunt consumerism”. People are more interested in venting and emoting since they have a captive audience and that usually involves a lot of “fail” talk. What I really would like to know is who originated the word, “fail.” It’s not even smart; it’s rather crass and dare I say blunt?…

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