Tuesday, February 3, 2009

On Word of Mouth Advertising

I have opinions and I state them freely. People generally understand when I am stating an opinion, as opposed to making a statement of fact. Common signs of stating an opinion are prefacing the statement by words or phrases such as "I think" or "it has been my experience that."

For example, I have often stated that it has been my experience that the customer service at Circuit City stinks. That was, and will always be, my opinion of customer service at Circuit City, and I was not at all surprised to hear that they had declared bankruptcy and were closing their doors. Apparently there were a lot of other people who had the same experience with Circuit City, and like me, they stopped shopping there.

The thing is, because of the Internet, opinions get around a lot more efficiently than they used to. If a business treats its customers poorly, the news is going to get out. That's a good thing as long as the opinion is based on facts and the opinion is clearly stated as such, preferably with the factual basis for the opinion stated along with the opinion itself.

Let's explore why I lost all my respect for Circuit City, stopped shopping there, and told anyone who would listen that in my opinion there were better places to shop.

Some years ago, I wandered into Circuit City in San Diego, California (the store in the Loma Portal area if anyone cares). I purchased some software, which came in a sealed box. The box had a little heft to it, so I certainly didn't think the box would be empty, and it wasn't .... it had a manual for the software in it; just no CD Rom with the software.

So, I went back to the store with the manual and the box in hand and was treated to the following conversation:

Me: I'd like to exchange this. There wasn't any CD in the box. There was nothing but the manual.

CC: Oh, no you can't exchange that. We can only take back unopened boxes.

Me: I wouldn't have known there was no software in the box unless I had opened it. That was how I found out there was no CD in there.

CC: Well, we're sorry, but there's nothing we can do. You'll just have to purchase another box.

Me: And, what ... I'm supposed to open it up here in the store to examine it before I purchase it?

CC: No, we don't allow customers to open the boxes until they are purchased.

Me: But, if I purchase it, then I can open it up here in the store, and if there is no CD in it, then you will take it back?

CC: No. Once you have paid for the product and opened the box, we cannot take it back.

This was Circuit City's idea of good customer service. Why actually give the consumer what they paid for when you can just sell them empty boxes?

My response to this was to pick up my cell phone right there, in the store, in front of the "customer service" person, and call the company that made the software. I explained (in a very loud voice, that could be heard all over the store) to the software company exactly why I had decided never again to shop at Circuit City. The software company not only agreed with me that it was an idiotic policy for the store to have, but told me that they did not want to have the store's lack of respect for the customer to be attributed to them. So, I gave them my address, and they sent me, free of charge and no shipping costs, the CDs that should have been in the box.

Cost of that software: about $50. Amount of business that Circuit City lost because I stopped shopping there? Thousands of dollars. Amount of business that Circuit City lost because I told people about what happened to me and why I would not set foot in a Circuit City store again if I had any other option on the planet. Well, I have no idea, but I hope it was a lot. And, I'm not shedding any tears of their stores closing.

Four years ago, I moved to a particular development in a particular town in Texas (which is a state in the United States of America, just in case anyone could be unclear about that). People often come into this development looking at lots. Sometimes, they stop their car, wander down to the house and ask me questions, about living here, what I think of the town, what I think of the development. In other words, they ask me if I "like" living here.

I tell them the truth. Had I known what the past four years was going to be like, you could not have made me move to this development if you had put a gun to my head and ordered me to sign the papers. That is simply because my personal experience of living here has been as close to hellish as I ever want to get. That's my opinion, it is based on things that I was told before I moved here and things that have happened to me while living here. No attorney making veiled threats is going to change my opinion of this place. Quite the contrary, it will probably serve to make my opinion worse.

If people ask on what I base my opinion, I drag out the governing documents of the development (all of which are a matter of public record, and available on the Internet, or at the local county recorder's office), along with my highlights and notations on all of the contradictory materials, the clauses that make them one sided (in favor of the developer), and I tell them that I am now in the midst of a lawsuit with the developer over many of the terms in those documents and what appears to be (again, in my opinion) the uneven enforcement of same.

Now, I understand that people might choose not to purchase land in this development after talking to me. But, I do have the right to voice my opinion of the developer (with respect to this development), and my opinion of the management of this development (which has resulted from my personal experience). What I cannot do is say something about him (or the development) that is (1) not opinion and (2) not true. I have a right to tell my friends, in California or here in Texas, all about the developer's attempt to have me arrested (and why ... in my opinion ... it was simply an act of retaliation), or why (again, in my opinion) the management of this development is generally pretty awful, and if that means that my friends and their friends choose not to purchase land here, then that's as it should be.

Anyone who doesn't understand the concept and impact of word of mouth advertising deserves to go out of business. Any business that makes the consumer pay good money to be treated badly deserves to go out of business.

My respect for this developer and this development may be lost for all time. No matter what happens in the lawsuit, it is probably a given that I will continue to have a low opinion of both. The only thing that would be likely to change my opinion would be if both began to treat me with some small amount of respect or consideration. And, I doubt that's ever going to happen.

I'm also becoming less and less fond of the "city" (population around 1,200 ... that's a "city"?) that I live in. I generally recommend other towns in the area when people ask me what places I like in this part of Texas. However, I have not gone totally off liking the State of Texas or Texans generally. There are some good people living out here, some of my neighbors are wonderful people. But for them, I'm sure I would wake up every morning absolutely in despair over the decision I made to uproot and move here from California.

The moral of this lesson? Treat your customers and clients with respect. They are your best advertising when you treat them well and your worst nightmare when you treat them poorly.

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