How To Stop Using The Big Stick (and Speak Softly to Your Customers)

May 16, 2013

"In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing." -Theodore Roosevelt

It's mid-morning at the office. My coffee has arrived at that perfect 30 second window of drinkability between tongue scorching and iced-coffee. I pause to enjoy that rare moment when something interrupts my bliss. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a window on my second monitor scrolling through text like a piano roll. Something is happening on Twitter. That can't be good news.

I quick scroll through the feed and the news of a nationwide internet outage is unfolding on social media. The nation's third largest telecom provider, CenturyLink, is experiencing outages from Las Vegas to Florida and across my region in Tennessee and North Carolina. On Twitter and Facebook the complaints are piling up about loss of internet and email, and downed websites.

So what should a company do in the face of a massive problem? How do you use the myriad of tools online to effectively communicate with customers and resolve issues? Balancing the internal struggle between public relations and customer service is often complicated. But there are a few simple things that we can all learn from Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. And while social media was not even on the radar screen in the late 1800's, Teddy Roosevelt was a master at preparation and quick response. He is still the only one in history to receive a Medal of Honor and a Nobel Peace Prize. Let's look what Roosevelt can teach us about how to respond online.

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

Companies love to talk to customers loudly about themselves. Marketing can easily turn into a cascade of "Hey look at me!" emails, blog articles, and Facebook posts. While Roosevelt's "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far," quote was related to foreign policy, it applies equally to online relationships. Speak softly and calmly directly to your individual customers. Far too often, brands carry out "big stick" plans that are one-to-many focused. That is an easier and more cost effective approach, but with the power of your company also comes great responsibility to interact with directly with your customers.

Roosevelt described his policy as "the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis." This means you should have a plan long before anything happens. Who is in charge of your social accounts? Are they empowered to make decisions? A recent event organization gave their employees up to $100 each to help their customers and exceed their expectations. Speaking softly to your customers will allow you to just carry your stick as opposed to flinging it wildly in the general area of your problems.

So how can we apply this to a real world situation like the CenturyLink outage? The first issue was the "big stick" approach to damage control. The official @CenturyLink Twitter account had one post stating, "CenturyLink is currently experiencing a service disruption. We are working to restore service and apologize for any inconvenience." And there was a similar post on its page. There was no official response to any individual about the outage on either of its primary accounts. The company should have moved a team from customer service and responded individually to each request for information on Twitter and Facebook. The responses that eventually began to trickle out on CenturyLink's social accounts was a copy and paste of the original message.

So what are the folks at CenturyLink doing right? After a Twitter search I found an account called @CenturyLinkHelp that is responding to posts aimed at @CenturyLink. It has six photos of real people with names on the background wallpaper that are responding to complaints. After the initial blast of copy and paste messages they started using customer names and carrying on real conversations. They have set up an email and a Facebook App comment form to handle customer requests. And even on Facebook there is someone named Patti who has started to respond to wall posts on the CenturyLink page.

We all fail and make mistakes. To quote one of my favorite TV shows, Mythbusters, "Failure is always an option!" We have all had moments in life or business similar to what CenturyLink experienced. Now is the moment when we can all learn from this story. Have a plan in place for total disaster, speak directly, sincerely, and compassionately to your customers, and wield your power with great responsibility hoping you never have to use it. Calm conversations will not only solve problems but turn your clients into advocates.

"It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed." -Theodore Roosevelt