eCommerce: Dealing with customer complaints and the Streisand effect

By: Corrie Davidson, 4 May 2010

It’s something that most companies don’t want to see – a disgruntled customer starting up a site; but sending out take-down notices and getting your lawyers involved as a knee-jerk reaction can make matters even worse – by invoking what’s known as the Streisand Effect.

In some cases, cowardly individuals will put up a anonymously- these aren’t the ones to worry about as most people visiting will see it for what it is – someone taking a poorly thought out potshot and who isn’t game enough to back their claims or to put a name to their complaint. Credibility = 0.

But then there’s times when a customer is so incensed and feels they have such a solid case, they publish up everything involved with their complaint, quite happily put their name to it and basically say “bring it on!”.

A “sucks” site story

Take for example the situation with Here’s my understanding of the story.

A Lowes customer had a fence installed by a Lowe’s contractor and felt that the workmanship was shoddy. He sought for the situation to be rectified and refused to make final payments on the fence work until the repairs were done. Lowes responded by sending the outstanding account to a collections agency.

The enraged customer then started up the site and added plenty of detail about his ordeal on an ongoing basis; complete with photographs of the alleged poor workmanship and details of the collection agency’s efforts. He put forth quite a convincing case.

Lowes then set their lawyers onto him claiming that his site infringed on their trademark rights. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) assisted the customer by providing legal counsel; advising that as his site provided information on a consumer experience, it’s not only allowed under trademark law, but protected by the First Amendment; which guarantees freedom of speech to the general USA populace.

In amongst all this, various blogs, sites and news services picked up on the story which drove a great deal of traffic to the site.

Lowes’ legal reaction to Mr Harkleroad’s site was not only ineffective, but totally backfired through what’s known as the “Streisand Effect”.

What is the Streisand Effect?

The Streisand Effect is a term used to describe a online phenomenon whereby an an attempt to censor or remove content posted online receives extensive publicity in a short period of time. It was coined after Barbra Streisand sued a photographer and an image archive for US$50 million to try and have aerial photos of her house removed from the online collection. The publicity generated by the attempt simply piqued people’s curiosity.

Streisand Effect scenarios are often painted as a David vs. Goliath type situations with the complaining client gathering plenty of backing from visitors. These people tell others, news services pick up on the drama and it snowballs – it’s word of mouth anti-marketing and a nightmare for any public relations department.

I just ran a search on the name of a large Internet services company that struck trouble recently and 9 out of the 10 listings on the first page of search results were extraordinarily negative. This has happened to quite a few large companies in recent nears, most notably Dell, but it can also happen to smaller companies too.

Once the online community has thrown support behind these sites and with plenty of links pointing in; it can be difficult, if not impossible, to have them removed from SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). The best you can do in that situation is to have higher ranking sites saying nice things about you and linking to your site using the site name in the anchor text. Even then, that will only push the negative listings down the SERPs.

Prevention is better than cure

Should you be unfortunate enough to search on your company name and find these sorts of sites ranking high in the search engines; mud is sure to stick and some potential customers will certainly be spooked.

A good (free) way to keep tabs on buzz about your company, aside from using the major search engines, is by using a service such as Serph, which is free. Serph gathers data from blog search engines, social media and news sites and social bookmarking websites and you’ll get very fresh results.

If you find a “sucks” type site associated with your company name; before running to your lawyer, carefully research what the client has had to say as they may well have a valid complaint. If the name of the complainant isn’t on the site, try a WHOIS query on the domain name.

If there is something to their gripe, deal with it as civilly and as quickly as possible before the site gains traction. It may even pay to participate in the online conversation – but tread carefully and keep your cool. People will be watching your reactions closely and some will even goad you. With the proper approach you may even be able to turn a negative conversation into a positive piece of promotion!

Keep your legal sabres in their scabbards for as long as you possibly can, but don’t be afraid to go for the throat (legally) from the outset if the claims are totally unsubstantiated. Unlike the case with the Lowes customer; some people moan simply because they can or are factually challenged – and some folks just have too much time on their hands.

In online or any business, you can also help reduce the possibility of complaints escalating, be they justified or otherwise, by ensuring that your staff have the proper training in conflict resolution and general customer service.

Offering a means other than email – such as phone or live chatsupport can also help defuse situations; and live chat has the added advantage of providing a written record.

Good news travels fast online, bad news travels at the speed of light – and “we’ll sue you” is a threat you should never issue lightly and without a great deal of thought.

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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6 Responses to “eCommerce: Dealing with customer complaints and the Streisand effect”

  1. Corrie says:

    Another good read along these lines is this blog article:
    BP’s fake Twitterer offers PR lessons — and fundraising — for the oil disaster

  2. Janice says:

    That is quite intriguing. It gave me some ideas and I’ll be writing them on my web site shortly. I’m bookmarking your site and I’ll be back. Thank you again!

  3. Jerlene Quirke says:

    Nice one. Enjoyed this.

  4. Ehtel Penman says:

    Excellent stuff. thanks for posting.

  5. Schleker says:

    Good share, great article, very usefull for us…thanks.

  6. Cam says:

    Nice post, keep em coming!