Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A Customer Satisfaction Study in the Blogosphere

I recently hosted the weekly Carnival of the Cats. You would think that it would be an innocent enterprise to generate traffic and links. It turned into a disaster when I disappointed a customer. It was a terrific example of how a single piece of poor customer relations can turn into a major loss of revenue.

In this case, revenue is defined as blog traffic.

The blogosphere provides a look into customer motivations impossible in the retail industry. In retail, when a customer is dissatisfied, you may never even know about it as they go home and tell all their friends in private what a pig you are. In this case, my porcine properties were published so that people in Papua could peruse them. Global self-destruction as it were.

Here’s the story.

I had looked forward for weeks to the Carnival of the Cats. As a new blogger, it was a chance to generate traffic to my site and perhaps create a few returning customers to build my readership. I worked through a couple of candidate themes that I thought might be witty and finally decided to use my Feline Theocracy series as the foundation for the post.

I spent a great deal of time that week dutifully going through the emailed submissions, reading the posts and writing unique text about each. Some of them were just fabulous. Almost all of them were really cute. Then I got to Sissy Willis’ posts. Here they are: post 1, post 2 and post 3. I had no idea who she was and didn’t take the time to carefully read her blog to learn more about her. My first reaction was that these were bait-and-switch posts.

I decided to run with my Theocracy theme in what I thought was a comical fashion. I was careful not to mention her by name. Here was my comment about her posts:

Someone sent in three links to posts with photos of cats and topics that were totally unrelated. The Feline Theocracy declares thee an apostate! To the tuna mines with you!
I was delighted with my prose. How many times do you get to use the word apostate on a blog? Additionally, the mental imagery of my cat sentencing people to toil away trying to mine for tuna has always been funny to me. (I may be alone in that, but it’s my blog, not yours and if you don’t agree then you can just go trawl the seas for catnip.)

It was a total disaster. I insulted and deeply hurt Sissy and the viral marketing of doom was started. Sissy went to the mattresses and blasted away at me on her blog. Laurence Simon, the godfather of the Carnival of the Cats, weighed in on his. Comments flew. Bombs were dropped. I posted in response and commented and emailed everywhere I could in an attempt to put out the flames, but I know I was not 100% successful.

Who knows what the end result will be? Certainly not what I had intended. Anyone who claims that bad press is better than no press is an idiot. Bad press sucks. Michael Dukakis found this out when he got his clock cleaned in the presidential election a few years ago after failing to respond immediately to negative stories.

In all of this there is a lesson. Well, many lessons, actually. The blogosphere allows you to see the precise mechanisms of customer dissatisfaction. A retailer may go a long time without ever knowing that some of his employees are driving customers away through bad behavior. Blogs make customer motivations transparent. I was immediately able to see how I had screwed up. I was also able to watch the progression of the bad press as it passed from one blogger and commenter to another.

I have read about this in books and heard about it in seminars, but it is another thing entirely to watch it happen live.

Another lesson I learned from this is that I needed to get on the problem right away and show that I sincerely cared. Each time Sissy's post was read, another person left with the idea that I was a jerk. Looking at her statistics on TTLB, I saw later that she gets about 500 hits a day. That's a pretty large set of enemies to generate.

Had I waited, no matter how sincere I really was it would have appeared like I was being mercenary and responding only to the pressure like when a company makes changes after a local media ombudsman rats them out. Had I fired back, even slightly, I would be forever lost to those readers and everyone they could reach.

Like a new forest fire, it is much easier to stamp this kind of thing out early than to stamp it out later. I was incredibly fortunate in all of this because as soon as she saw that I was sincere in my regret, she posted a very nice piece about my blog and those 500+ people saw me in a different light.

In his book, A Touch of Wonder, Arthur Gordon has a superb essay entitled “The Far Side of Failure.” He describes his meeting with Thomas Watson of IBM where he was taught that success lies on the far side of failure. “You’ve got to put failure to work for you,” admonishes Mr. Watson. I’m trying to do just that with this experience with the Carnival of the Cats.

I would like to thank all of the people who made this educational experience possible, including Sissy, Laurence, Tara, Justin and in particular, Kukka Maria.


Kukka-Maria said...

Every day I make the best decisions I can with the information I have. Every day I inadvertently piss people off because of my choices. I learn. I live. I keep on keepin' on.

You've done your best to clean this up. My hope is that you forgive yourself and get back to doing what you do best: Ruling the Feline Theocracy.

Your minions need you! ;)

Anonymous said...

KT - this is an excellent post. I'm sorry the "blog swarm" came down on your head. But we all eventually have to learn how our posts are read by others. It's just that for most of us - it's a bit more low-key.

I've made mistakes in interpretation of things others have written and I've had it happen to me. The problem with blogging (its biggest problem) is that there is no "inflection" there are no visual clues to tell people what is happening - so they interpret from the words.

As your post yesterday proved... It was written in the same manner as the original Carnival post and - for me - very hard to decipher if you were actually apologizing for not knowing about Sissy and how she posts or if you were doing the apology that isn't an apology... if you know what I mean. (kind of along the lines of "I'm sorry you're such a jerk" type of thing)

You did an excellent job with the rest of the Carnival. (I wanted to say that before I forgot)

I didn't know you were new to blogging, which does make a bit of difference in how your mistakes are perceived. Seasoned bloggers generally are held to a higher standard because they've been around and should know better. It's good that you mentioned in this post that you are a new blogger. (most of the people who click through on these things only have time to read the post as it's written - we don't have extra to look into who is doing the writing if we don't know them... time is at a premium!)

We all live and learn - I'm sure I'll make more mistakes myself in the future and who knows when a blog swarm might engulf me. No one is exempt on the net, even little bloggers like me.

I'll check back again and see if I can get an idea of how you write outside of the Carnival post. A good apology will get you farther than just about anywhere else on the blogs - people understand a mistake - they don't like arrogance. And just think of what good company you're in now - Instapundit, Blackfive, Power Line, Captain's Quarters - some of the biggest blogs out there have posted apologies for things they got wrong. Best of Luck.

Sissy Willis said...

You're The cat's meow!

K T Cat said...

In Arthur Gordon's essay, he was told by Tom Watson to "double his rate of failure" in order to achieve success. I had to coach my son on this the other day. He was going through a rough patch and I had to show him how to make use of his mistakes. I'm actually glad I did this. It was extremely educational from a variety of standpoints.

Empress Kukka-maria, your links are spreading far and wide, as they should be. Much like the Papacy and French royalty in the middle ages, I see ours as a lasting friendship. :-)

Neurotic Mom said...

I rarely comment but read your blog regularly.
Keep in mind you can't please all the people all the time and you can go insane trying to.
You are very creative, keep up the good work.

WomanHonorThyself said...

Sounds like your heart was in the right place..sigh..sorry but git back up n start over y'hear!