I was reading an article in the online Wall Street Journal entitled “No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull The Plug On Laptop Users” (see http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124950421033208823.html – it was brought to my attention by @enthused). The meat of the article is that coffee shops, particularly independent coffee shops, are beginning to limit and even ban laptop users.
I am a fan of the the indie coffee shops – I think they can be gathering places for vibrant neighborhoods, and I’d like to see more of them survive. To survive, though, is to embrace your customer, and I’d be very interested to see the financial analysis of allowing versus limiting or banning outright laptop users. My intuition and experience tells me that this is in general a very bad idea for these indie coffee shops, but I am open to a financial analysis that proves me wrong. I believe that there are a tremendous number of patrons who go to their favorite coffee shop to work, and are paying customers; unless you are standing room only, a customer in your shop is a whole lot more valuable than a customer who finds an alternative place to work (and caffeinate).
But that’s not what this particular blog post is about. Buried in the story is what I consider a little gem of a cautionary tale about how not to handle social media.
As a preface, I believe one of the key “transformations” companies need to make in adopting social media is
Broadcasting (Controlling) Your Message >> Influencing The Conversation About You
I don’t think Masoud Soltani, one of the owners of Cocoa Bar in New York, shares my opinion.
So here’s the background: Hannah Moots and her boyfriend stopped in to Cocoa Bar in Brooklyn (of which Soltani is an owner) on a Friday night to do grad school apps. It seems there was only one other couple in the place at the time – according to Ms. Moots, she and her boyfriend were going to do the apps, then have a glass of wine or two afterward. They were turned away because they would ruin the ambiance of the place by bringing out the laptops (although apparently their table wasn’t in view of the only other occupied table in the house). So Hannah and her boyfriend went elsewhere. That’s where the social media story starts.
Hannah posted a review of Cocoa Bar Brooklyn on Yelp.com – it currently has a 3.5 star rating (http://www.yelp.com/biz/cocoa-bar-brooklyn) discussing her experience. She gave it a less than stellar review – as, might I add, did quite a few others. This is where it gets good. According to the Wall Street Journal “Masoud Soltani, a Cocoa Bar owner, confirms that he sent her a Yelp message: ‘I remember you very well…I would not think you would write such bad stuff about us.’”
This is one of the great worries every owner or CEO has about social media, right? The fear that someone will say something negative about the company, or off-message, or inconsistent with their brand. And guess what? This story proves they are right to be afraid – there are actually people out there saying bad things about the Cocoa Bar! This is no phobia – this is a rational fear.
But at the end of the day, Hannah Smoots didn’t need Soltani’s permission to post her opinion in an open forum – Soltani couldn’t stop that message any more than Horizon Realty or Alliance Property Management can try to quash negative opinions about their properties. The negative review of Cocoa Bar was out there, and at this point the company only had three options: ignore the message; engage the customer (presumably in hopes of turning a negative into a positive; try it sometimes, it works!); or nullify the message (by proving the information false or biased in a level-headed manner).
Soltani apparently thought “self-righteous indignation” was a fourth option . . . it really isn’t.
The customer may not always be right, but the customer is always the customer. The customer has a voice, as she always has had, but social media provides the means to amplify her message, and deliver it to a potentially large audience. Whether you, as a company, choose to participate in that conversation is up to you, but to ignore social media for fear of these situations is a lot like hiding under the blanket when you hear a scary noise in the dark. Turn on the lights! Face your fears, embrace the voices of your customers, and you might be surprised at how much better your business can be for the effort.
There is, though, one other option that the ever entrepreneurial Masoud Soltani has discovered as well: according to the WSJ, “Mr. Soltani says [Hannah Smoots] is no longer welcome in his store.”
So if you find yourself in front of the Cocoa Bar in Brooklyn at 228 7th Ave (3.5 stars on Yelp.com), you might consider whether you would prefer a coffee shop that believes you have a voice worth listening to. Might I suggest
Southside Coffee, 652 6th Ave (4.5 stars on Yelp.com)
Root Hill Cafe, 262 4th Ave (4.5 stars)
Cafe Grumpy, 383 7th Ave (4.5 stars)
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera . . .