The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease

Kindle Wireless Reading Device, Wi-Fi, Graphite, 6" Display with New E Ink Pearl Technology

The squeaky wheel gets the grease

Once upon a time in America, we had hundreds of little newspapers dotting the colonies to give leverage to the voice of the individual - they called it muckraking, and some of the blunt criticism contained in them regarding public officials makes today's media seem tame, but it served a vital purpose in our fledgling democracy.  What it did was start a core belief that it was important for the voice of the common man or woman to be heard.  

Of course, it wasn't simply enough to be heard.  Using one's voice was a demand for those in positions of power and authority to listen and to take action.  250 years later, we have tweets, blogs, and high-bandwidth always-on connectivity to anyone at anytime - its become quite trivial to "get heard" or to "get retweeted."  Each generation is more wary of marketing-spin and better able to sniff out BS from the truth and share both with others.  And this has led to a new model for effective consumer advocacy, such as the following:
“Cutting support costs can be lethal to customer satisfaction. Comcast for several years had found itself on lists of the ten worst companies in customer satisfaction.  Then in 2008, In response to “tweets” by irate customers, Comcast, started providing customer support on Twitter (@ComcastCares) as an alternative to having customers wait in the phone queue.  Customers could actively watch the Comcast Cares team trying and usually succeeding at solving problems. Recently, the American Customer Satisfaction Index for Comcast rose 9.3% in satisfaction. The only significant internal change was the team of 10 Comcast Twitter-reps.”
To absurdly simplify this case, cliché style, I’ll say “the squeaky wheel got the grease.”  But historically an isolated complainant had very little leverage to apply to move a company off a set position, to “get the grease” as I said.  But today, that frustrated customer has Internet access, the Internet has social media applications like Twitter and Facebook, and individuals have grown accustomed to immediate response and real-time communication due to the ubiquity of “anytime, anywhere, with anyone” gadgets.
Wealth (and influence), legal training, PR skills, or expertise in organizing groups is no longer a prerequisite for action.  The only prerequisite now is the boldness to let your issue be known, to put your name behind it.  Like rolling a snowball down a hill, forces of nature are thus set in motion.
This is not to discount the organizing efforts or investment of some individuals in customer advocacy, merely to point out that the Internet allows individuals to push a cause forward according to their unique talents, and the aggregate effect is that things get done and companies take notice.  The case of Don Wilson and his advocacy for Volvo owners who had a problem with their Electronic Throttle Module is a great example.  Don says on his site,, he is just a normal guy with a car issue.  Maybe, but he put together a web site, wrote to his Congressional representative, and convinced a news station in his hometown of Denver to do a segment on the issue.  So Don is an über-advocate, but he still may not have gained traction (excuse the pun) if not for the thousands who shared his problem and rallied (another auto pun, sorry) with him because he posted it on the Internet.
The throttle module, while it is a critical component, by itself is only a $300 part.  If this type of advocacy were a simple profit and loss business decision, I think Don would have thrown in the towel long ago.  But he has connected to a nerve with fellow owners, and this communion with others sparks a passion that may not make sense to the impassive corporate accountant, but is no less real than the numbers on a ledger.  What smart companies understand is that it is a good thing that customers, and loyal customers at that, have a lofty image of their products - that is what they spend money on branding for, right?  But these customers also want to see reality come closer to the brand image they have in their mind.  So, what do we do with a problem like Maria?
No longer is an individual customer, citizen, or any type of constituent or stakeholder isolated due to their lack of financial means, geography, shortage of time, or lack of skills in organizing a formal protest on an issue.  To break it down, I have made a first pass at identifying key elements in social-media based advocacy, but here they are, in proper, 5-element numbered-list fashion:
  1. just-in-timeunlike our political parties, or other organizations with a little too much staying power, these efforts arise from a need, see the need through to resolution, and then disperse
  2. geographically-dispersed – as an example, protesters in Iran can find kindred spirits from ex-pats around the world.  Of course, the risks are much higher in political advocacy than they are in typical consumer advocacy
  3. viral – if a critical mass of people identify with an issue and find determination with the kinship of others, the communication and connections spread faster than any media tour or PR campaign could ever hope to do.
  4. low cost of entry – the minimum contribution is simply to identify yourself as having the same issue.  As I described, the organizing effort of some individuals is amazing, but nothing matters more than standing up and being counted.
  5. importance to the individual – this is related to both “just-in-time” and “low cost of entry” – the potential benefit to the individual, on average, is greater than the required effort, again on average.  I am frustrated that the rechargeable battery in my Roomba robot vacuum cleaner has gone bad 3 times, all just out of warranty.  I could just walk away, but I love the product EXCEPT FOR THAT ONE THING.  I get nowhere with the $8/hour “customer service” agent, asking for “the manager” also just got me stonewalled……wait a minute, what did I just write in this blog?  Hey, I’ve got an idea, and I’m pissed off!…come join me on Twitter, you can find my tweets at #roomba_batteries_stink.  Gotta go advocate, bye.