When Phil Hoffman's dishwasher, which was 8 months old, started malfunctioning, he first tried to contact the manufacturer by phone.
Unable to reach a human, the Hoffmans took to the Internet — specifically social media.
“We went on their Facebook page and said we were having problems,” said Hoffman, of Wadsworth. “It wasn't a flaming message, but it was that we were not very happy. We got an answer almost immediately.”
It would take weeks of back and forth between Hoffman, Bosch and Lowe's, where he purchased the dishwasher, before Bosch declined to help Hoffman and Lowe's replaced the unit.
Hoffman feels he never would have gotten his issue resolved if he hadn't turned to social media.
“There's no question in my mind the phone service that many companies have is intended to keep you away from them. It's not intended to solve a problem,” Hoffman said. “So many companies are paying attention to their reputation online that when people start to post negative online comments, they take it seriously. Instead of me calling you and its a private conversation, now it's telling it in a public way.”
Daniel Gleich, president of Social Power, an online social media resolution site, said Hoffman is exactly right.
“When you share something on social media, the viral effect is that hundreds of thousands of people see it. It creates negative or positive publicity,” Gleich said.
“Companies are concerned about their image. It could destroy your image. The only people they used to be afraid of was the press. The individual they didn't really care about,” Gleich said. “Now, companies are concerned about every individual because the larger your network, the more damage you can do.”
Gleich said his website, www.socialpower.com, is not designed for individual complaints, but to harness social media to amplify ideas from consumers or create momentum for change.
An example, he said, is a Web campaign attempting to build mass to convince Starbucks to use iced-coffee ice cubes instead of regular ice cubes that melt and water down drinks. Gleich said that when something gets to a critical mass, Social Power will contact the company to try to negotiate the change. The site also is exploring building critical mass to seek bulk buying power, such as a campaign right now to get cheaper energy rates for a large group of people.
In Hoffman's case, he spent nearly four months negotiating and waiting on his dishwasher. While the Bosch people called immediately after the Facebook post, they eventually said his serial number was no longer on his dishwasher and they couldn't do anything. They also suggested Lowe's might have sold Hoffman a returned unit with the sticker ripped off. Hoffman contends that a dishwasher's serial number should not be on a sticker glued onto its side door. Lowe's eventually replaced the unit for Hoffman, saying they had installation records for it and denying Bosch's assertions.
In an email, Lore McKenna, Bosch public relations manager, said the company had worked with Hoffman over an extended period of time and, “We are glad that together with Lowe's we could help with his dishwasher. Customer satisfaction is vitally important to Bosch. Irrespective of the method of contact we strive to provide world-class customer service. Bosch actively engages with our customers in a variety of ways based on the customer's preference, be it social media, website, telephone, email, or written letter.”
In a phone interview, Karen Cobb, a spokesperson for Lowe's, said there was no way of determining how Hoffman's serial number disappeared, though Lowe's technicians believed it came off in a wash cycle.
“We believe in standing behind the services and products we sell at Lowe's. This was a situation where one of our customers needed assistance, and we were happy to be able to assist,” she said.
Hoffman’s situation with Bosch/Lowe's was his first time using social media to resolve a consumer issue, but he had a good previous experience with the medium in another circumstance.
Hoffman said that last year a Best Buy ad with a mother kicking Santa off a roof and trying to kill him disturbed him. He posted something to this effect on the company’s Facebook page: “Really nice. People attacking Santa. Merry Christmas.”
“I immediately got an email back from them saying, ‘We're going to talk to our advertising agency and express your concerns.’ I was like, ‘Really?’ ”
Hoffman said the Best Buy experience was in the back of his mind when he had the dishwasher problems.
In the middle of his Bosch/Lowe's issue, Hoffman also used Facebook for another issue.
Sometime in February, when there was unseasonably warm weather, Hoffman wanted to grill outside and discovered the valve to his nearly full Blue Rhino propane tank was frozen. He took it to the Buehler's grocery store where it was purchased and was told the policy of Blue Rhino was to buy a new tank.
Hoffman and his wife went home to post on Blue Rhino's Facebook page asking if that, indeed, was company policy.
“We were contacted immediately and told to take it back to any Lowe's,” Hoffman said. “It was no problem. Again, it was the social media piece.”
Ferrellgas, which owns Blue Rhino, did not return a call seeking comment. When told of the situation, Bob Buehler, vice president of marketing for Buehler's, apologized.
“This is not our typical response. We have replaced propane tanks in the past and recently with no questions asked,” said Buehler, who said the company spoke with all service center associates, reiterating the company policy of providing a new tank or providing a refund.
“This would be our reply any time a customer is dissatisfied with a product or service at Buehler's,” he said. “We are embarrassed we did not take care of this customer and want to apologize to the customer and correct the error.”
A Buehler's manager phoned the Hoffmans, apologized and discussed the internal action taken at the store.
Hoffman said that with the power of social media, companies don't want bad vibes.
“That's what I think is unique in this moment in using social media. They will actually do something and take action. So often when I deal with companies, they don't care,” Hoffman said.
Gleich said companies care what consumers think — both good and bad.
“It's not the only way to go, but because of the fact that everyone has access to social media, companies are taking comments very seriously. People who are pleased with companies, [those] companies embrace them. Both good and bad, companies are very concerned about how consumers feel about them,” he said.