When I was 15, someone tried to kill me for a piece of pizza.

It was late August and I was working at a pizza stand at an amusement park. The temperature was almost 100 degrees and the line for food was so long I couldn’t see the end of it from my place at the register. It was already a difficult day: We were dealing with a long line of cranky parents who had waited for 20 minutes in the blistering heat to pay $4 for a slice of pizza, while their kids complained and the same four polka songs played over and over on the park’s speaker system. It enough to make animals out of men.

Then something went wrong back in the kitchen and the food stopped coming. After a few minutes of apologizing, the crowd started to mumble, and then shout and then they began to chant. Then someone at the back of the line threw a rock at my head and all was lost. The employees fled the store through the back door and park security was called in to clear the rioting guests off the patio.

When it was over, I told my manager we needed to do something. Get a backup oven. Put a canopy up to shade the line. Turn off the polka. Anything to keep people happy and calm. But my boss told me those things weren’t necessary. It had been a bad day, but tomorrow would be better. We just needed to keep doing what we were doing.

She hadn’t been on the line that day. She’d been out back smoking when someone threw a rock at me. Of course she didn’t understand.

I realized two things that day:

  1. Everyone should have to work in customer service for a least a few months. It builds empathy. I guarantee you the person who tried to stone me for pepperoni had never stood behind a cash register.
  2. You can’t understand what your business needs unless you understand your customers. And the farther you are from the front lines, the harder that gets.

If my boss in 1998 had wanted to know what that pizza shack needed to avoid full-scale guerrilla warfare, she would have had to lay off the cigarettes, come spend some time on the front line and maybe dodge a rock or two herself. And for some businesses, that might still be the way to go. But companies with a robust social media presence have another option.

A lot has been written about the benefits of using a hub-and-spoke or dandelion social media model to make social a part of every aspect of the organization. Most people focus on the little benefits: it makes the company more human, it improves customer service, it helps employees collaborate more, etc. But the best reason to have everyone in your organization spend at least a little bit of time involved in the company’s social media efforts is that it puts everyone on the front line.

Everyone needs to be exposed to the unruly element that is your customers. Your engineers, your sales people, your HR team, your managers and even your CEO need live fire experience. And social media is the easiest way to get it. Your CEO can sit behind a monitor and watch the questions and comments roll in without having to worry about how their observation is affecting what people are saying. No one pulls any punches — but no one can throw any rocks either. It’s a window into what people are asking for, confused by, complaining about, praising and condemning. It’s free and it’s easier than going on Undercover Boss.

Once you understand your customers, in all of their complexity, you can begin to see what you organization really needs to thrive.

Or you could sit back, have a smoke and wait for the riot.

Image Credit: hidesy, via iStock Photo

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6 responses to “How social media can save your business from a customer riot”

  1. Thank God for search.

  2. @hanelly says:

    Great story, Jesse. (This is how blogging should be done: get the message across via storytelling).

    Ok, that said, I'll respond to the post:

    You're right on the money. When my girlfriend and I go out to a restaurant and see another customer treating a waiter/waitress poorly we always think the same two things: 1. this person is awful and 2. they've never worked in a restaurant (hopefully, otherwise, they're just outright awful).

    There's nothing that will shock the "behind the scenes" staff into realizing how tough it can be in the front lines like being in the front lines themselves. This reminds me of a time that I convinced and executive I know to have a go on the company blog. She relented, and eventually went for it.

    After it went to the masses she wanted to know how to turn the comments off.

    It hadn't occurred to her how harsh the internet (which is comprised of customers) can be.

    That empathy you are talking about can help make the social media discussion more mature in an organization. People think it's easy to put yourself out there for your customers to react to. Sure, some of them want to tell you how great the pizza is, but many of them just want to throw rocks.

    Great story.
    My recent post Kenny Powers, K-Swiss, and the Ramifications of Viral Success

  3. Larisa C. says:

    Amen, Jesse. The issue is: not too many CEOs and HR and IT "leaders" etc. really want to hear the unfiltered opinion of customers. Honest feedback simply rocks their world too much! That is why so many "leaders" surround themselves with yes men and women that act as simple mirrors.

  4. Jasjeet Gill says:

    This story really is close to home because I am a college student that has had to work in customer service for a very long time. Social media can save you from having to deal with customers in a wide variety of ways. The article discussed personal experiences that I can also agree with. Social media has done a lot of good for customer service. It gives consumer a way to know about the product and the things that they are interested in before they arrive at there destination.
    My recent post Food: The Way to a Successfull Club is Through Your Stomach

  5. We think how you communicate with customers depends on how the complaint came in: standing in line, over the phone or through social media, such as a blog or a Yelp review. However, communicate you must, as the story points out. Bosses can't be out to lunch on this topic, either.
    John Heinrich, Chief Mentor
    American School of Entrepreneurship http://www.theasoe.com

  6. master hui says:

    you are a good story teller; actually there is a book called "Email, Social Marketing and the Art of Storytelling" by John Sadowsky, distinguished professor of Management at Grenoble Graduate School of Business

    i am also a storyteller but focus on telling stories in sales & marketing with Chinese cultural spirit

    might share some Chinese Stories on Frontline Sales

    here is one
    A Chinese CEO always shared views with Sales People to learn client feedback from the field; But as a CEO, he would like to avoid losing face; so in each conversation with the Sales people, he tried to argue to win with his authority. Sales people continued to quit including some bright one; He asked his VP of HR the reasons behind.