Nestle’s Social Stumble, or, Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Yelp

The latest news in the Nestle social media conflagration is that the “confectionery giant” (a label that evokes the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man as a worthy visual metaphor) has summoned its various ad agencies to Switzerland, where they will, presumably over steaming mugs of hot cocoa, have their collective ass handed to them for their failure to avert this crisis.

And well they should. Much has been made of Nestle’s tone-deaf response to customer revolt, but one hopes that some shit has rolled downhill in the direction of the company’s well-heeled agencies, which include not only Publicis, but allegedly, the high-priced social monitoring consultancy Nielsen Buzzmetrics.

But I come not to bury Nestle, but to guide them. I fear that they’ve been led to believe that this is all very complicated, this business of managing customer responses in the wild and woolly social sphere. It isn’t. When Nestle’s Facebook manager scolded the fans about the brand’s right to set its own rules of engagement, he snootily intoned, “It has ever been thus,” but he got the “it” part wrong. Across all media and for all time, the fine art of flak-catching has ever been thus: the customer is always right.

But don’t take my word for it. Take Yelp’s. Some months ago, while reading a client’s Yelp reviews, I came across the site’s advice to businesses on how to respond to angry reviewers, and I tell you this without exaggeration: it contains everything you ever needed to know about responding to negative social feedback. Its wisdom is both clear and complete. Seriously. Here it is.

The rules really are as obvious as Yelp makes them out to be: Remember that these are your customers, acknowledge their position and don’t fight them on it, and tell them what you’re going to do to fix it. As exotic as social media can seem, and as hostile as the digital natives sometimes appear, the ground rules are ground rules because they work. It has ever been thus.

Am I saying that Nestle could cancel its Swiss summit, fire the agency running its social strategy, and simply instruct its social practitioners to follow the same advice that Yelp gives to Floyd’s Gas ‘N Sip in Topeka, in the wake of the rancid beef jerky crisis? Yes, actually. Do exactly that. Good customer service doesn’t change; it merely scales.

Plus there’s really no time for a summit. When the shit rolls downhill, it rolls fast. Jeremiah Owyang’s fine analysis of the Nestle dust-up and its crisis management lessons describes the brand’s Facebook page as overrun by “critics of their sustainability issues around palm olive and deforestation,” but that is no longer the case. This thing has gone meta. The negative comments now focus entirely on the company’s social media insolence, and consumers’ hurt feelings at that insolence will linger long, long after Nestle’s supply chain problems have been corrected.

Now I know that following Yelp’s advice sounds entirely too easy, and large companies often need to overpay in order to feel like they’re getting real value. So I offer Nestle this solution: fly me to Switzerland for the summit, and I will read Yelp’s feedback page aloud, emphatically and with feeling. If you like my work, you can pay me in Laffy-Taffy, which is not only delicious but is 100% orangutan-free.