Giving Customers the Finger

Over cocktails with colleagues this week, we were talking about the usual – agency life, working with clients and oh, yeah, how the Internet has become one big pity party with a lot of whiners and complainers.

This is nothing new. In fact, the amount of noise that complainers make is getting louder and louder. To be clear, I know there are MANY legitimate things that we can complain about. But because we live in the age where anyone with an Internet connection “has a voice,” we’ve become used to reading our “friends” posts about delayed flights. Bad drivers. How their coffee is too hot. Even complaining about all the complaining (guilty). I’m sure the human behavior scientists are having a field day with all the data they’re collecting when it comes to wanting to be heard and ego and on and on. After all, studies show that the number one reason people post things on social media is for ego-driven purposes.

But no, this post isn’t going to be about how bad customer service stories get shared more than good ones. And it especially isn’t going to be about how to turn detractors into advocates.

Instead, I want to talk about telling your customers (or A customer) to go screw themselves. First of all, this is not a luxury all brands can afford. In fact, it’s one that very few can pull off. The example that comes to mind is the Alamo Drafthouse (from about a year ago). If you haven’t been or don’t know, the Alamo is a movie theater that serves you food and drinks during a show. They also have quirky film screenings with themes like quote-alongs, sing-alongs, shooting cap guns during action movies, etc. But what I REALLY love about the Alamo is how, before every movie, they explicitly warn you that if you talk or are on your phone during a movie, you get one warning and then you’ll be escorted out of the building (“we’ll kick your ass out” is how they so delicately put it). Because, as they say, they don’t mean to rude, but if you’re gonna be, then so will they.

If you’re not familiar with the story, an intoxicated young lady got kicked out of a movie for being loud. She called and left a message voicing her disgust that she couldn’t believe such a thing would happen. That they ripped her off. That this is America, for cryin’ out loud. But did the Alamo apologize and invite her to come back for a free movie? No. Instead, they made an example out of her and turned her voice mail into a commercial.

It went like this:

1)    Brand has policy.
2)    Brand highlights policy outlining rules and consequences when you break the rules.
3)    Customer breaks rules.
4)    Brand gives customer the finger.

Like I said, not all brands have this luxury. But because the Alamo stood up for what they believe in and pushed back on a whiny customer, it not only endeared its current customers to love them even more, but they won new awareness and probably customers because of it.

Holy moly, this makes me giggle like a little schoolgirl. We live in a world of contingency documents and crisis planning. We prepare for the worst-case scenario. We cringe at the stories of vigilante customers and fear the almighty social media influencers.  Brands spend half their time trying to figure out how to engage with their customers and the other half preparing for the backlash of engaging with their customers.

Again, allow me to reiterate. AT&T can’t do this. Ford can’t do this. American Airlines can’t do this. But when it comes to niche brands with deeply loyal followings, there’s an opening. No, you shouldn’t be looking for opportunities on how you can tell your customers to go fly a kite. But if you have a set of simple, ironclad rules that come with your brand and someone breaks them, then a whole new set of opportunities opens up.UPDATE: Since penning this post yesterday, I was reminded of this tried and true story about Southwest Airlines from the book “Nuts.”

Jim Ruppel, director of customer relations, and Sherry Phelps, director of corporate employment, tell the story of a woman who frequently flew on Southwest, but was disappointed with every aspect of the company’s operation. In fact, she became known as the “Pen Pal” because after every flight she wrote in with a complaint. She didn’t like the fact that the company didn’t assign seats; she didn’t like the absence of a first-class section; she didn’t like not having a meal in flight; she didn’t like Southwest’s boarding procedure; she didn’t like the flight attendants’ sporty uniforms and the casual atmosphere. And she hated peanuts! Her last letter, reciting a litany of complaints, momentarily stumped Southwest’s customer relations people. Phelps explains: “Southwest prides itself on answering every letter that comes to the company and several employees tried to respond to this customer, patiently explaining why we do things the way we do them. [Our response] was quickly becoming a [large] volume until they bumped it up to Herb’s desk, with a note: ‘This one’s yours.’ In sixty seconds, Kelleher wrote back and said, ‘Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.’

Personally, I love hearing stories of brands fighting back. When it’s done “on brand” and is legitimate, it can go a long way. And who knows? Maybe one-day things will even out and the cry-babies will think twice before they post that negative comment about the tiniest thing.

We can dream, can’t we?


  • August 30, 2012

    Matt McDougall

    This sounds perfect for health insurance companies! Oh…wait…

  • September 25, 2012

    Saurabh Khetrapal

    You might be playing with fire, but I imagine every brand has one or two customers they’d like to do this to. But you have to stick to your guns! You can’t make people stick to your rules some of the time; this kind of thing is all or nothing. But it’s still a little great!

Leave a Reply