I’ve been reading Heather Armstrong for years, and I’m a big fan. Truly, it was the experience of reading both her posts and Jessamyn’s during their pregnancies several years ago that helped me start feeling like I was maybe possibly in theory just a tiny bit ready to have kids of my own. The realness of what they wrote about did a lot for me in terms of confronting a lot of vague fears; the palpable beauty and love in their words helped me in ways I find difficult to explain.
I think Heather’s a hell of a smart cookie for leveraging her website the way she has, and I believe she deserves every bit of recognition she gets. She’s got an audience that’s hard for me to fathom—over a million followers on Twitter alone. Even subtracting the spambots, that’s . . . intense. That’s, like, the entire population of Detroit. Can you imagine sharing the intimate details of your life with Detroit? I mean, not Detroit specifically, just—fuck it, you know what I mean.
Anyway, if you follow her on Twitter you may have seen some posts from her about Maytag. I don’t know the whole story, but it sounds like she bought a brand new washing machine, it broke, and subsequent attempts to have it fixed didn’t work out. She posted several frustrated-sounding Twitter updates that repeatedly included the phrase DO NOT BUY MAYTAG.
It sounded like Home Depot connected with her on Twitter, and eventually, Whirlpool (the parent company of Maytag). It wasn’t clear if anyone actually called her, or did anything to help resolve the broken washer situation, but from the perspective of Twitter-bystander it sounded like they were trying to help. But maybe not. It was hard to tell.
I don’t work for Maytag, nor am I a fan of sitting back and accepting bad customer service. When I was treated poorly by American Airlines a while back, I definitely complained about it. I think it’s a good thing to share these stories, both for consumers and for the businesses that are hopefully going to see them.
I think there’s a difference, though, between taking the time to explain what went wrong, and basically calling for a boycott of a company because of your own personal experience. “Do not buy Maytag” is a call to action, and it went out to over a million people. Does Heather have the right to use Twitter to vent about an annoying situation she’s dealing with? Absolutely. Is there an ethical issue in telling such a large audience not to give a company their business, without providing any backstory aside from a short-by-nature series of updates someone may or may not have read, depending on how frequently they’re checking Twitter? Maybe. That’s where I disagree with her choice to call Maytag out in such a public fashion—not because she doesn’t have the right to receive good service, but because it was less of a “Hey Maytag, here’s what’s going on, you are totally shitting the bed right now,” and more of a no-context brand-bash to her entire audience.
At my company we monitor Twitter mentions constantly. Our support team jumps on any issues we see out there and we do our best to make pissed off people happy again. I fully understand the impact one person can have when they’re unhappy with your service, and maybe part of where I’m coming from is imagining being on the marketing side of Maytag right now, trying to do damage control and—from the looks of things—learning about Twitter for the first time (note that Whirlpool has a total of 11 updates, 4 of which involve Dooce).
Does Maytag deserve this kind of bad PR? Well, I think my problem with the whole thing is that I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s a company-wide Maytag problem, a local Home Depot problem, a stupid service-person problem, or what. A non-working washing machine sucks, especially in a house with kids—believe me, I get it. But should I not buy a Maytag the next time I need a new appliance? Heather seems to think so. And while I won’t make my purchasing decision based on one anecdotal piece of information, here’s the thing: some people will. Maybe a LOT of people. All you have to do is search Twitter for the responses people sent to Whirlpool on Heather’s behalf to understand the power of her influence. Or hell, look at some of the messages sent my way after I publicly disagreed with her.
Marketers will be talking about this, how one blogger stirred up so much conversation over a broken washing machine. People will theorize about the role of social media and the consumer, and much will be made of how consumers now have a voice in the face of uncaring corporate entities.
This isn’t quite the right story, though. Yes, companies should be using social media if they want to listen to their customers. Yes, consumers have the right to share their experiences, good and bad, because we can all benefit from that. But this isn’t the average customer/company interaction. Heather’s Maytag posts don’t prove that bitching about a company on Twitter gets you anywhere, it’s an anomalous data point. After all, how many people have over a million people listening to what we have to say? At this point, Maytag can’t win PR-wise: if they don’t respond, she stays mad; if they do respond, their actions seem less genuine than they would have been if Heather had, say, 20 followers. I think the more relevant issue has to do with whether a larger voice leads to greater responsibilities. In this case, as much as it seems like Heather should be able to say what she wants because what the hell, it’s her Twitter account . . . I kind of think it does.
I really do hope Heather’s washing machine gets fixed soon. And I hope that if the weird knocking sound in my dryer means my (non-Maytag) appliance is on its last legs, I can get it resolved. You know, on my own.