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Parasites and Profiteering: Brand Apathy in the Twitter Age

08/21/2013 02:05 EDT | Updated 10/21/2013 05:12 EDT

"Ugh, it's so big!" my girlfriend exclaimed with more than a hint of disgust in her voice. I had to agree with her. I'd seen my fair share, and it was as big as they come.

Plainly visible on our brand-new sheet set, purchased at a big-box retail chain, was a bedbug. Dead, thank God, but its tiny, contorted legs twisting skyward still filled me with a dread that I had only felt once before: two years ago in my old, dilapidated Greektown apartment. I was itchy already.

"I'll deal with it tomorrow," I said, feigning courage. I wrapped the bedding, along with the parasitic sojourner in as many garbage bags as I could find, and left it on the porch. And for the sake of brevity, I'll tell you that I did deal with it, though it took me nearly 3 hours on the phone and Internet with the retailer, as well as an in-store visit, over the span of the next 48 hours.

Now, believe it or not, my issue isn't with bedbugs, or that retailer. Heck, I still shop there.

My issue is with antiquated corporate policy and brand accountability. Why, in this era: the pinnacle of the digital expose, are brands taking a passive approach to serious issues, like consumers finding bedbugs in their products?

We're living in an age where everyone with an Internet connection has the ability to become a journalist; to write his or her own critique of a product or service. And if they lack diction or the ability to disseminate their ideas into the digital realm, they can easily connect with someone who can help them articulate, package and market their thoughts. LinkedIn allows us to connect with subject matter experts; brand managers; bloggers, lawyers and editors with the click of a button. Twitter allows us to connect with those same people, and spearhead our own editorial gripes in 140 characters. Facebook allows us to register complaints with brands directly, on community-moderated pages. We can record our musings on bad customer experiences via YouTube and upload them instantly. And let's not forget about that old standby, the email account. Yet, brands continue to act dismissive towards the consumer's ability to call them out on their corporate responsibilities.

A retailer sold me a product that introduced a parasite into my home. A parasite that is notoriously resistant to modern pesticides. It took nearly three days to get a refund on that product, and I still have not received an apology. Nor did anyone I spoke with grasp the gravity of the situation: that I came in for cheap bedding, and I left with an invoice from an exterminator. I did eventually receive my $42 refund, though, and decided to take some time to reflect on the minor victory, as well as the interactions I had with the brand's various representatives and managerial strata.

At the end of it all, I was left wondering: What constitutes a code red, deploy-the-spin-doctors-and-call-the-legal-team situation, if it takes almost three days and numerous phone calls to issue a refund on $42 bedding contaminated by a topical and widely-known pest? Did I need to find a severed finger? A Ziploc bag full of anthrax? Also, what level of profile, social media or otherwise, is required to elicit an immediate response? What if I was a now-disgruntled blogger with 15,000 followers on Twitter? Or a medical correspondent for a major news network? What if I was Anderson Cooper?

These are all questions we should not have to ask ourselves, because somewhere, right now, a brand is paying someone to enforce quality assurance standards, so that we, the consumers, don't find bedbugs in our retail purchases. A brand is paying someone to revise corporate mandates to reflect a kindler, gentler, more responsive attitude in situations of crisis. A brand is paying someone to develop digital (and offline) strategies for PR disasters just like mine. Yet, I spent hours on the phone and online with this retailer, and the nowhere did I experience the influence of the employees I just listed.

My crusade for brand accountability was bolstered a few weeks later, when I attempted to reduce my monthly spend with a large wireless provider. After a 45 minute phone call, I was told that my corporate plan had been adjusted--nay, improved upon--and that my overages of five to twenty dollars were a thing of the past. My next bill was $150 more than usual. The rep I was speaking with not only assigned me the wrong plan, he completely failed to set up a text-messaging package.

Cue the endless parade of CSR and middle-management associates asking me "do you want to escalate this complaint?' Shit yes, I do.

When I finally reached the perceived top of the totem pole, the lady on the other end of the line begrudgingly offered me a $50 credit and thanked me for my patronage. $50 off a $206 bill. $50 off a $206 bill that would have been $75, had I not picked up the phone to call the wireless provider. I, the consumer, was literally paying for employee error; for brand negligence, and while the wireless provider seemed happy to acknowledge their error, there was no sense of accountability.

Again, I wondered, how these practices could be mandated and reinforced, by a telecommunications giant, no less. By a company that, ironically enough, provides you with the ability to voice your electronic gripes via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, email, and yes, even the telephone. This wireless provider had the to ability to slap me with an erroneous charge, and then make me get on the phone and fight through nine levels of automated hell to even register a complaint. Where's the accountability? Where's the efficiency? Where's that painless and engaging user experience that I see trumpeted on their website? Why aren't more people getting mad about this, and if they are, why isn't our collective frustration as consumers resonating with somebody who can do something about it?

It is absolutely flippant of brands to think that their long-term credibility will not be impacted when pissed off people take to social media to voice their opinion; just look what happened to KitchenAid.

Our individual concerns are just as important as their sum, and brands need to realize that.

I cannot honestly say that the companies I've talked about today aren't working to improve their customer relations models, but what I can say is that those models will never been improved upon if we don't take the time to vocalize our opinions on current brand practices. So find your digital voice, and vocalize often.

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