Comment: Customer service vs cancel culture

Fleur Emery considers the pitfalls of being a small business owner in the age of cancel culture.

Fleur Emery is a startup expert and the founder of online co-working space REALWORK.

My cashmere dressing gown is ruined. It’s cream, purchased during my Gwyneth-Paltrow-in-the-Hamptons phase. It’s a high-class problem except that I didn’t ruin it; a cleaning company did and it doesn’t care.

Cashmere is high-maintenance, so when my bathrobe needed sprucing up, I googled a company that specialises in exactly that. Except the company didn’t fix it; they sent me an email saying they’d destroyed it but weren’t liable because of the terms and conditions I had box-ticked my acceptance of.

‘What?’ I said, shaking my head to check I wasn’t back in the nineties before Trustpilot or Google Reviews. Haven’t they read my email signature? Aren’t they scared I will rubbish them in print? Resisting the urge to be an arsehole, I replied politely, enquiring if there was an insurance claim I could pursue. Zero fucks were given and I was left to ponder the radical change that has occurred in people’s perception of customer service during my career.

With my first business, Grasshopper Porridge, our customer service was cheerful but patchy. In those days, the stakes were low and the worst that could happen was a telling-off over the phone. Sometimes the mix of ingredients in the pots wasn’t right and we would get letters that a bit of grovelling and some free product would always make go away. By the time my beer company was live, the temperature was rising thanks to Amazon reviews, something we fell foul of when a batch of shandy we made was too fizzy and started exploding in people’s fridges. It was a nightmare although, to be fair, the bad reviews we got didn’t affect sales and it all blew over. 

In the past half a dozen years, though, the voracity of the outraged social media user has grown exponentially and the whole landscape of customer expectation has transformed. Negative feedback is something that business owners live in fear of; cancel culture is real. The work businesses are putting in the back end to deal with this phenomenon is also reaching new levels in response. I recently talked about a retail credit company I didn’t like on Instagram Stories and within five minutes had received a lengthy DM from its customer service department ready to pacify and contain me. The reason it was surprising is that I hadn’t even tagged the company. How did they know I was talking about them?

I’m not sure if life for small brands was better then or now. The old way enabled founders to fly by the seat of their pants but also, sometimes, to get away with murder. I really can’t defend some of the sloppy practice and sleight of hand that I witnessed and partook of where consumer complaints were something to be met with an entitled eye-roll. Now, when everyone has a smartphone in their pocket to record any imperfection in a product or service, the associated fallout can be catastrophic. Unless, of course, you do a brilliant job and experience the flipside: instant mobilisation of your happy customers as marketers of your product or service.

‘Social proof’ like this has the power to activate brands in a way that puts a generation of London agencies out of a job, which I’m all for, but if I’m honest, I’m also relieved that I’m not launching physical products into this space where you can’t put a foot wrong.

This article was first published in Courier issue 38, December/January 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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