This column should come with a gross-out warning, but there’s a point here. Really.
A couple of weeks ago, a most astonishing story spread around local social media. I’m surprised it didn’t go worldwide. I believe it is true because some of the people involved are familiar to me, but I’m not going to name names just in case.
This is an Opinion
What happened was this:
A Little Rock woman and her friend went to a local movie theater to see “Star Trek Beyond,” and she ordered a $4.50 tub of popcorn. “I was so looking forward to the popcorn because I’d been living la vida low carb for 3 months. That popcorn was going in my mouth and I couldn’t WAIT,” she wrote on her blog.
But the second handful of popcorn contained a blob of what my elementary school pals called ABC gum — already been chewed. Someone else’s previously enjoyed chewing gum was in her popcorn and then in her mouth.
If I know Arkansas Business readers, you are torn between your sympathy for the customer and your sympathy for the manager whose employee let him down so completely. You know all too well the miserable mission of making right what someone you are paying screwed up so thoroughly.
According to the woman’s story, the manager on duty assured her that employees weren’t allowed to chew gum and pointed her to a phone number to call for customer service. The customer said she just wanted her $4.50 back — a reasonable request — but the manager was not authorized to do that. (Place a mental sticky note here.)
The customer called the phone number and left her name and number on what she described as an answering machine from 1987. By that point, she no longer wanted just her $4.50 back; she wanted to be reimbursed for her movie ticket as well.
The customer service manager returned her call a couple of days later, but it’s not clear why. He didn’t apologize or offer any refund. He reiterated the company policy against chewing gum, as if that were proof that her story was not credible.
In the meantime, the customer had written a negative review on the theater’s Facebook page. (Another lesson point.)
The review complained about the gum and the handling of it by the manager on duty. It suggested that employees in their 20s might — gasp — violate the rule against chewing gum. Her two-star rating seems generous under the circumstances.
Now upper-level management gets involved, but if you think this is the point when the customer gets some satisfaction, you clearly didn’t see the story when it became a local viral sensation. Instead, the anonymous executive responded on Facebook by objecting to the characterization of the young employees (“We do not employ teens as other cinemas do,” he wrote, countering a complaint the customer had never made) and scolding the customer for failing to call the customer service number (although she had) and for having the nerve to “lash out” by posting a negative “revenge” review.
Yes, you read that right: The management response to a pretty egregious customer complaint escalated from unempowered to unconcerned to actively belligerent. And the worst of it played out in public — even after the theater manager removed the comments from Facebook and apparently discontinued the mechanism that allows the public to leave reviews — because the customer grabbed screenshots and posted them to her blog, which was widely shared on Facebook.
So, readers, are your sympathies still torn? You might wish I would identify the theater just so you can avoid it.
There are so many lessons here, starting with this: Employees, especially those who are supposedly management-level, must be authorized to fix problems. If a manager can’t refund $4.50 to a customer who complained of something truly disgusting, what is he managing? I recognize that there are unreasonable customers in this world — have you seen some of the comments left on my columns? — but when there are legitimate complaints, someone on site must be empowered to respond.
Responding days later is not the answer. And getting into a public dispute that makes your business look even less responsive is definitely not the answer. Finally, if you can’t stand the heat of a negative review, you shouldn’t invite reviews in the first place.
Who would believe that finding gum in her popcorn would be the least distasteful part of this woman’s experience?
Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.