Are You Afraid of Your Customers? Should You Be?


Every month, it seems, we’re presented with a story about a customer using the power of social media to spread the word about the way they’ve been done wrong by a small business. It could be a disappointing meal that causes the customer to get out their phone and Tweet about it; it could be poor service that results in a Facebook complaint.

Every business can have a bad day, and by and large, these social media complaints come and go without attracting a lot of attention. But every now and then, a complaint strikes a chord with the larger public. The story goes viral, and all of a sudden, the small business owner finds themselves in a very uncomfortable spotlight.

That’s what happened to the owners of the Big I Diner in Oxford, MA. James Glaser, a military veteran, attempted to have a meal at the diner. James has PTSD as a result of his service, and as increasing numbers of people do, has a service dog Jack accompany him to help manage the condition.

The owner of the diner refused service to James. He did not want Jack, the service dog, in his facility. James produced papers proving that Jack was a legitimate service dog. The owner exclaimed he did not care and told James to go. James followed up with a call to the local police department to further show proof. The officer confirmed that Jack was in fact a service dog, and by law, allowed into any place of business. Still the owner refused him service.

That’s when James took to the web.


Facebook Page: Boycott

On Monday, August 26th, James launched a page on Facebook to tell his story. Just two days later the page has grown to almost 30,000 supporters. Support has come from all around the country, as the discussion of one man’s treatment at the hands of a local business owner has grown to a referendum on the way vets are treated, the phenomenon of PTSD, and the role of service dogs in our community.

The support James has received takes many forms. Some of it is supportive, seeking ways for the community and Big I’s owner to come together to resolve the issue. Other commentary is more negative. There have been comments threatening physical violence against Big I’s owner; even to the extent of burning his business down. While page moderators have been quick to remove those comments and ban the commenters, there’s no doubt that type of message can be terrifying to read.

No less frightening is the impact this type of action could have on Big I’s bottom line. Small businesses, especially restaurants, tend to operate on paper-thin margins. If enough customers stay away for long enough, Big I will go out of business.

Is It Too Much?

social-media-vintageSocial media and a little bit of local press took this small local story from a spark of outrage to a roaring bonfire. Does the owner of this business deserve to be attacked via Facebook?

It’s important to understand that customers have always complained. Since the dawn of time, any time a customer feels like they weren’t treated properly, they’ve told everyone they could about their negative experience. Today, we have social media. This means that customers are empowered to spread their story far and wide – fast.

Why are some social media complaints ignored while others are taken up by the masses? It has to do with the origin of the complaint. In James’ case, we’re talking about an injustice – where someone who was complying with the law was discriminated against unfairly.

This injustice resonated with the public, who feel like they can help James – and prevent future injustices – by supporting his cause online. Make no mistake – the public is very aware that this kind of online advocacy can cause a small business to close their doors forever. They consider it a small price to pay if it keeps other small businesses from doing the same thing.

As a small business owner, you need to be very aware of the power social media gives your customers. At the same time, it’s important to understand that you’re not powerless in this situation either.

Social Problems Have A Social Solution

James Glaser did not set out that morning to create a social movement. He just wanted some breakfast. What could have been a simple situation, a misunderstanding – as it appears the Big I’s owner was legitimately unaware that people use service dogs for PTSD – could have been smoothed over with an apology.

It’s still not too late – the Big I’s owner could win back the masses if he would show that this outcry of support for James has convinced him to change his mind. The customer is not always right, but in this case, he was. Acknowledging that, apologizing, and moving forward with a corrective plan could go a long way toward repairing Big I’s damaged reputation.

The same tools that James Glaser used to spread his story are available to the owner of the Big I. Being smart and strategic about using social media to avert or correct PR disasters is no longer something small business owners can consider – it’s something you have to be prepared to do.

Lesson Learned

Your customers just want to be appreciated in person and online. You can avoid situations like this in business by being sincere and understanding to your clients. Mistakes can and do get made. Effective communication can help your brand move past them and keep your business intact.

If you’ve found yourself struggling to handle conflicts – large or small! – on social media, or you want to learn how to use these tools more effectively to market and promote your brand, give us a call. You don’t have to be afraid of your customers. You need to know how to talk to them in a way they can hear what you’re saying. We’re here to help – and best of all, we’re extremely dog friendly!

2 responses to “Are You Afraid of Your Customers? Should You Be?”

  1. I think you have a great point, Jennifer. I personally believe mistakes are opportunities to grow. But most people succumb to their own ego in the heat of the moment and tend to defend their actions, rather than attempting to make things right with the people that matter. When dealing with customers, in any forum, it behooves us to remember that it is far less expensive- to our wallets, to our reputations, and to our souls- to keep happy customers. 🙂

    • Jennifer Shaheen says:

      Misty – I want to thank you for taking the time to reply to this post and sharing your thoughts. It’s not always easy to run a business, but the biggest thing we all need to remember is to take a breath.

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