[David Alston at a tech conference. Photo by Mark Krupinski]
My previous Twitterville Notes post told the story of how @scottmonty saved Ford from a fast-moving assault on its reputation by using Twitter and other online resources. By contrast, U-Haul, North America's largest consumer truck rental firm managed to suffer serious longterm damage to its reputation by ignoring a Twitterville assault, ignited by David Alston of Radian6.
Here are my early draft notes:
" The story of U-Haul and its apparent policy of turning a deaf ear to customer complaints is offered here as a “Don’t let this happen to you” warning.
An incident occurred at a U-Haul rental counter in New Brunswick, Canada when David Alston’s wife was arranging for an move in October 2008. Alston is a marketing executive at Radian6, a leading social media measurement tool provider.
He tweeted a 138-character complaint: "My wife just went through a totally rude customer service experience with our local U-Haul rep. Downright rude. Do they want the business?"
Now, if a complaint like that were posted about Dell or Comcast, someone would have been all over it in minutes. Using Twitter Search or other tools, it is very easy for companies to catch any mention of their name on Twitter—faster than they can catch it on a blog.
Not so, apparently at U-Haul. No one from the company joined the conversation. But others did.
As Kaitlyn Wilkins, an Ogilvy PR operative who blogged [http://catchupblog.typepad.com/catch_up_blog/2008/08/why-twitter-should-matter-to-you-102-uhaul-edition.html] about the immediate response from the original Alston Tweet.
“So, for those of you who are playing along at home - in less than two hours, dozens of people responded to a single Tweet regarding UHaul, and effectively told 3,763 other people that they disliked the brand. And the conversation is still going.
For a company that is not "listening" to social media - this tree just fell in the forest, and nobody heard it. Whatever the corporate line is for not participating in social media (fear of losing control of the message, man hours required to staff a digital program, etc.) there is no doubt that situations like this not only hurt a brand's corporate reputation online and off, but actually impact consumers purchase decisions. One of the most recent Tweets indicates that one individual is now contemplating using another moving company as a result of these conversations. Ouch.”
What had happened in a short period of time, is that a new Global Neighborhood instantly formed. Its name was “U-Haul Haters,” and the influence grew beyond Twitterville boundaries. After Wilkins’ post, numerous blogs picked up the story including FastCompany online .
And in Twitterville, the U-Haul haters kept growing. Even after Alston moved on to other activities, more people found the conversation and joined in. By Christmas 2008, more that 125 people had recounted bad experiences with U-Haul. I started adding up the number of followers these 125 people had and quit at 10,000. That was nine months before this book was published. If you search now, I’ll wager the number has continued to grow.
Along the way, U-Haul had multiple chances to do what was needed—simply apologize to one customer and make good. But the company consistently tripped over itself. Alston was not the first person to complain in public about U-Haul. Nor was Twitter the first venue. In February 2008, Inside Edition a popular TV program, reported on citizen charges of U-Haul safety negligence. U-Haul’s CEO Joe Shoen agreed to be interviewed for the program and he said a lot of the right things.
"People can't get this organization to behave, but I can." He declared. He told viewers to call him on his cell phone, and gave out his number on the air: 602-390-6525.
Alston found the number and sent Shoen a text message. Recalled Alston “He called me and left me a voicemail later that day and said he would call again later.” But Shoen did not call back. Alston text messaged the CEO again, and again Shoen did not call back, thus botching a second chance to offset the callousness of his rude employee in New Brunswick.
Several people tweeted to Alston that he should consider Penske, U-Haul’s leading competitor. Each of them noted better service, better equipment and lower pricing. In the end, he followed the Twitterville recommendation, and would post a blog saying, “In a word, Penske rocks. From start to finish my experience with Penske was top notch.”
The price of a truck rental? Variable. The cost to U-Haul of unhappy customers finding each other: priceless.