Applebee’s Epic Fail in the social ecosystem

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Applebee’s has been at center of a self-inflicted media crap storm this week after an employee posted a photo of this receipt on Reddit.  After learning about the posting Applebee’s fired the employee.  Adding a dimension of ‘weird’ to the story, the customer in question demanded that all of the employees at this particular Applebee’s also be fired.  Applebee’s practiced restraint in this regard.  A silly mess but it begs the question:  who’s at fault when an employee starts to air his or her dirty laundry on-line.

Was it wrong for the employee to post this receipt on Reddit?  It would have been worse had customer information been included in the post: credit card number, name, etc.  But it wasn’t.  The employee deviated from Applebee’s communication policy, true.  But as has been reported this week she’s not the only one.  Their social media policy is a leaky ship and poorly managed.

Was Applebee’s wrong?  Did firing the employee generate anything other than bad press? What important lessons are now lost?  We do know this: Applebee’s brand certainly suffered an ass-whooping this week because of it’s decision.  The employee is transformed into a martyr for short-sighted policy mismanagement, and that’s about it.  Above all, Applebee’s myopic decision illustrates that their company brand is connected to the digital ecosystem.  

The customer is just the customer–some mean-spirited jerk who felt it important to send a message by denying a tip (really?  have you ever worked for tips?).  Nonetheless, the customer is just just a wad.

So how could Applebee’s have avoided this mess?  And what can a small business learn from their gaff?

First, recognize that your business brand is in the hands of not only your marketing department but also your employees.  Connected consumers and connected employees alike are shaping your brand for good or for ill.  Coach employees about best practices, enforce a social media policy if you chose to head that direction.  Or, best yet, create a culture that is so cool, so totally awesome, and so positive that your employees are stoked to play a role and love sharing their positive experiences (Starbucks nails this by the way).  As Peter Drucker says, “Culture trumps strategy every time.”  

Second, start focusing on customers’ influence rather than the sheer number of customers in your database.  Not all of your customers are equally influential.  Some are just plain nasty.  Start thinking of your customers in terms of their ability to help grow your bottom line and not just simply grow your base.  Which customers are the easiest to work with?  Which customers represent the most return business or the highest average ticket?  Which customers actively award you with referrals?  Which customers are loyal year in and year out?  It’s time to love the customers who love working with you.  And it’s time to start firing the customers who don’t.

That’s right: FIRE the pain-in-the-butt customers.  Applebee’s should have openly fired the nasty, rude customer.  Do they really need another mean-spirited chiseler who is in the red zone over a plate of coconut shrimp?  Me thinks not.

Applebee’s decision to fire an employee because of a social media mistake illustrates that we’re all still going through a social media learning curve.  Managing employees and culture in a connected era means businesses need to leverage positive cultures to encourage positive employee sharing.  Business owners need to start thinking about customers in terms of influence.  And employees need to recognize that their simple sharing can extend to places that they don’t anticipate.

Oh, and tip your waitress!

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