Every now and then, your company makes a decision that has a pretty big impact on your customers. Sometimes that impact is positive, sometimes it does a pretty good job of ticking those customers off. How that decision is received can make a big difference in the ongoing success of your business. If you aren't watching the Internet to gauge the reaction to these decisions, you're making a big mistake.
I was reminded of this last Thursday when the Christmas break wrapped up and I returned to my pattern of heading to Panera bread twice a week to work while my kids are at preschool. Sometime during the last two weeks, Panera put a new policy in place that required wifi users to "log-in" to the wifi access once an hour. Since I work here for roughly three hours every time I come in, that means I have three interruptions to my work flow.
I can understand the thinking behind the policy change. Perhaps it's designed to empty out their stores during peak hours. If that's the case though, then the time limit should be in play during those peak hours, leaving those who come in when the place is empty to work and eat our bagels in peace.
As it is, I'm feeling pretty darn annoyed.
I've been coming here two mornings a week for more than six months. The staff knows me, the kitchen folks know me, the couch in front of the fireplace has an indent the shape of my rear on it. In other words, I am a very regular customer. Based on how often I tell people about going to Panera to work both in real life or on my blogs, you might even call me a brand evangelist.
I represent the customer you don't want to annoy. Not because there's anything special about me, but because I'm the type of customer who is already enamored with the brand and therefore willing to put up with the occasional inconvenience. If I get annoyed by what you're doing, chances are high that new customers will be annoyed as well. The difference is those new customers will simply walk out the door and never come back. The loyal customers will probably at least complain and give you a chance to fix things.
This is part of why social media and blogs are so essential to how you run your company. Scanning the conversation on social media sites and via Technorati is a great way to find the complaints being made by your loyal customers. One would hope that Panera Bread would pick up on this post and come here to address their reasons for adding that one hour time limit, but I have my doubts.
(ETA: Mack Collier has a great piggy-back post off of this one explaining how to find out what's being said about you on blogs. He also points out that this site probably reaches more readers than Panera's own site; based on that, he warns that Panera (and others) shouldn't write off the voice of a single blogger.)
A smart competitor to Panera Bread (say Atlanta Bread Company, Camille's or any other casual cafe) would be watching to see what consumers are saying about the company as well. As much as I love Panera, I do not love being forced to log back in every hour so that I can continue working. If I found out that a competitor with a similar environment and equally good food let me work without interrupting me, I'd make the switch.
I'm still here at Panera Bread and despite the high annoyance factor of getting booted offline once an hour, I'll probably continue to come back. That said, as soon as I find or hear of an alternative, I'll likely bail. The brand loyalty Panera had built with me over the past six months has been crushed with a single corporate decision. I'm now willing to jump ship to a new brand at a moment's notice.
Chances are good that my feelings are reflective of the larger business audience that thinks of Panera when they're looking for a place to grab a bite and some free wifi. If so, then Panera may be at risk of losing a core base of customers without even realizing it. And Panera's competitors may be poised to pick them up with a little savvy social marketing.
How will it play out? I guess we'll wait and see.
In the meantime, if you aren't already keeping your eyes peeled to see what's being said about you and your competitors, perhaps it's time to start?
Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.
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