Saturday, February 2, 2013

When "we care" rings hollow (My CHELSEA Welch post)


This weekend's tempest in a teapot concerns a particular restaurant check, which has been seen in imgur, Reddit, the Consumerist, and probably about everywhere else by now.

The short version: Pastor goes to a franchised Applebee's with a large party. Pastor receives automatic 18% gratuity on bill, based upon size of party. Pastor writes "I give God 10% why do you get 18" on bill. A waitress who wasn't working that table takes a picture of the bill, neglecting to remove personally identifying information from the bill. The picture causes a sensation on Reddit. The waitress is fired.

That's the part of the story that I already knew. But according to an R.L. Stollar story shared by Shawn Rossi, there's more. Much more. Rossi referred to this as "the next social media textbook example," and she's correct.

Here's a bit of what Stollar said:

Applebee’s fired the waitress in question, named Chelsea Welch. This created a fury of rage on the Internet, with social media users taking to their weapons of choice and lambasting away, thousands at a time, against the restaurant’s decisions. Numerous “Boycott Applebee’s” groups sprung up on Facebook, along with “Rehire Chelsea Welch” and other similar groups. Applebee’s website has a “What’s the Buzz” widget, that shows what people are saying on Twitter about the company. It’s been non-stop attacks, all publicly displayed on Applebee’s own page...

Stollar then talked specifically about what was happening at Applebee's own Facebook page. Go here for all of the details; I'm just going to concentrate on one little part of this.

It seems that whenever a company has to deliver bad news, it always prefaces it with a statement about how much the company cares about things. And the Stollar post documents plenty of examples from Applebee's. Here are a few:

We wish this situation hadn't happened. Our Guests' personal information - including their meal check - and neither Applebee's nor its franchisees have a right to share this information publicly. We value our Guests' trust above all else. Our franchisee has apologized to the Guest and has taken disciplinary action with the Team Member for violating their Guest's right to privacy.

Even with the nice-sounding preface "we wish this situation hadn't happened," this statement did not satisfy the mob, and resulted in thousands of negative comments on its own. Eventually, Applebee's added its own comment to the thread, which read in part as follows:

Please let us assure you that Applebee's and every one of our franchisees values our hard working team members and the amazing job they do serving our guests. We recognize the extraordinary effort required and the tremendous contribution they make, and appreciate your recognition and support of our colleagues.

At the same time, as we know you will agree, the guests who visit Applebee's -- people like you -- expect and deserve to be treated with professionalism and care in everything we do. That is a universal standard in the hospitality business. That includes respecting and protecting the privacy of every guest, which is why our franchisees who own and operate Applebee's have strict policies to protect personal information -- even guest's names....

So now we get the first of many examples (you'll see more below) of the "We value our team members, BUT" comments. Amazingly, even though Applebee's truly stated how much they cared about their employees, for some odd reason the mob of commenters was not impressed. So the negative comments kept on coming. At that point, someone at Applebee's took to responding to individual comments - with the same text. And that text itself was a beauty.

We can understand why you are upset. But the details circulating about this story do not represent all the facts....

But the mob kept coming, even though Applebee's said that they understood. Multiple times. Eventually the Applebee's commenter moved away from canned responses and wrote individual responses - using the same formula.

Hi James I'm really sorry your upset. will you please read the comment we posted above yours....

I can understand that TL. You should know though that the server was not stiffed....

Sorry you feel that way. If you knew me or we were face to face you'd know how much I care. No one's asking me to comment at 5 am in the morning. I am because I care, we care. I totally understand why you're upset and hate that I can't fix it.

But the best comment came some time later...presumably after some people had gotten some sleep:

As a company that relies on literally hundreds of thousands of incredibly hard working Team Members, we can assure you that we and our franchisees value and support them and their efforts. However this unfortunate situation has nothing to do with work....

Again, the same formula - we care about our workers, but this worker was a moron.

But keep on reading that message. Remember the first statement that Applebee's wrote, about how important their Guests are, and how they apologized to the Guest whose identify was revealed? Well, after several thousand comments, it appears that the Guest was a moron too:

Please note that we are also not excusing the Guest's behavior in this matter and the unacceptable comment she wrote on the receipt, which is offensive to us and all our hard working team members....

The thing that gets to me about this whole episode is that Applebee's messages are twice as long as they should have been.

Yes, I know that the cardinal rule of customer support is that when a customer is mad, you need to start your response by demonstrating your empathy with the customer. Let the customer know that you care.

As far as I'm concerned, however, that cardinal rule falls apart when the words that follow directly contradict that original empathy statement. In fact, if I can sum up all of the Applebee's statements above, my summary would sound like this:

We really really care about your feelings, but we fired Chelsea Welch anyway despite your feelings. In other words, your feelings suck.

In this case, the statement of empathy sounds like a lie.

So, with the benefit of hindsight, how would I have handled it? Perhaps a different type of empathy would have been in order. Instead of saying contradictory things about how our employees are important but if they screw up, they're gone (according to Welch, her posting of personally identifying information was unintentional), what about THIS type of empathy?

We at Applebee's know that you would be horrified if your bill were publicly posted without your permission. When this happened to the pastor - a customer just like you - our franchisee fired the jerk who did it.

None of this "we truly care about our team members" stuff. You see, everyone ended up identifying with the employee. Why not encourage the mob to identify with the customer?

Just a thought.

Which reminds me - now that Facebook has this new search facility, I'd better see if I've liked Applebee's. I'll have to remove that like.
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