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The Psychology Of Open Letters, From A Customer’s And A Brand’s Perspective – Karthik Srinivasan


Karthik SrinivasanThere has been a spate of open letters recently.

There was the much-shared open letter addressed to “Mr ALEXANDRE DE JUNIAC, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, Air France-KLM”, by Jay Shah. It has 1,000+ comments and Jay has been responding to many. Air France has repsonded to the missive too, though Jay gets back to them in the same tone as the original. The original open letter was dated October 28, 2013.

Then there was that open letter to Volkswagen India, by Sushant Khurana, who explained his continued and still-pending issue with Volkswagen India service centers across states. It all sounds incredibly messy and it makes you wonder if someone sensible from Volkswagen could put an end to this fast and move on. This letter was dated October 31, 2013.

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And then there was the open letter to BMW, by Ram Agarwal, explaining his ordeal with BMW India’s service center after spending INR 46 Lakhs on a vehicle. This wasn’t as widely shared as the Air France open letter, but it did do its rounds. This letter was written on November 2, 2013.

Finally, singer Sona Mohapatra wrote an open letter (without calling it so, in those words), on her Facebook page, citing how badly she (and her team) was treated by organisers and by the Commisioner of Kota (Rajasthan), JC Mohanty. This was on November 2, 2013 too.

That’s 4 open letters in just 5 days! I don’t remember seeing so many open letters in such a short span of time in India… so far!

All four were shared on social networks quite a bit and barring Sona’s Facebook open letter, there were two common factors uniting the other three – they were written by customers of big brands and they were the first pieces of opinion posted by the 3 gentlemen in question – Jay Shah, Sushant Khurana and Ram Agarwal. That is, they created a blog just to write the open letter and do not have any backing of having created content and marketing it earlier to help spread these open letters. They spread purely on the strength of the content posted in them.

While you could question the veracity of Ram’s letter (since he gives scant details on his ordeal), and debate the racism allegation on Air France, by Jay, the fact that these letters were shared a lot also tells you that not many people are perhaps debating on those lines. Many who share these see themselves in place of the aggrieved customer and empathize with them enough to share the word.

Does this help? I mean, why do they write these open letters? To solve the issue they are facing? Will it push the brand to do something about the issue faster than say, complaining to the customer care division?

Let me start with a simple analogy, from Twitter.

Let’s assume that you read something about a celebrity who is also on Twitter. And you want to share it with your followers. You do it and tag the handle of that celebrity. What does that mean? It means you want your followers to read something that you liked AND ALSO want to inform that celebrity that you shared it. You are addressing 2 sets here – your own followers and the celebrity, for whatever reason. That’s an open letter, right there on Twitter.

And then… a neighbor in my apartment sometimes wants to bring her son to order. She has tried arguing and debating it with him, but he doesn’t seem to listen. So, she goes to the balcony and shouts at him… shouts loudly enough for the neighbors to hear and perhaps expects the public shaming to subdue her son. That’s another open letter there!

So, it’s not new, as a trend – we have been using this tactic for sometime now. The crux of this open letter business is the fact that we talk to two sets of audiences at the same time because we have something to achieve from at least one and expect the public push to help achieve that. So, in that Twitter analogy, it says, ‘Hey celebrity, look… I’m sharing your stuff! Remember me – I’m one of your biggest fans!’. In the apartment example, it says, ‘Hey son… look at me shaming you in front of all our neighbors. Imagine what they will think of you! So, you better do as I say!’.

Open letter and customers/consumers

From a customer’s point of view, we have been chronicling our experiences on brands in public ever since social media started. Prior to that, we were doing that in message boards and discussion forums (in India, the best example is Team BHP, for automobiles). And before that, we had word-of-mouth anyway, which spread in limted ways, but spread it did! They don’t go massively viral, but they are usually read by most of the members within that community or a group of people (like the apartment example above – captive audience, usually). Skoda faced this sometime back with a complaint on Team BHP and the forum stood by the customer and forced Skoda into submission.

As I have mentioned before, an open letter is one step before seeking a legal recourse like heading to a consumer court. A consumer court exercise is seen as a time consuming process in India – it perhaps is too. So, after exercising other options that are reaosnably easy to do -

1. Calling the customer care and talking to them politely
2. Calling the customer care and talking to them sternly
3. Calling the customer care and asking to be connected to a manager/superior
4. Shouting at the customer care and threatening them with dire consequences
5. Looking for people you know in the company to escalate the issue beyond customer care
6. Give up all hope and head to the consumer court

Open letter is perhaps step 5.5. Your mileage with steps 1 to 4 depends on how complex the IVR menu of the brand is, how critical your problem is or the amount of money at stake.

The better written open letter has a better chance in evoking empathy with its readers – the more care and wit you add into it, the more it is readable simply as a piece of writing and tell its story well. Jay Shah’s letter is a good example – it is long, no doubt, but with biting sarcasm and details the ordeal with a lot of nuances that add the human element that we can relate to. At some point, there may be a lot of open letters out there that the impact of open letters in general may diminish. At that point, I assume people would start using paid options to help spread their word, instead of relying on well-written text or empathy-inducing experiences. There is precedence on this already – that famous British Airways case where the customer used promoted tweets to make his angst viral. The first person to use promoted tweets or Facebook post promotion to spread his word against a brand in India may sure make it into mainstream media… as also a few subsequent people. But that will eventually move off the interest radar too, if a lot of people use the option.

So, for customers/consumers – use your right carefully and don’t squander the opportunity to get back at brands. Use the steps 1 to 5 before you jump on the angry side of things to descend on the brand. The more time you spend before writing your open letter by trying to resolve things like sane, decent customers, the better you can relate your ordeal and win over people. If you jump on a letter before trying any natural, organized process for customer grievance, chances are your letter may be ridiculed or ignored.

Open letters and brands/companies

Most brands read open letters as, ‘Oh… this customer wants to force us into submission by taking his annoyance public?’.

This could be followed by either, ‘How dare he/she? Let’s ignore him and make his/her life worse’ OR, ‘Sweet Jesus! The shit has hit the fan. Let’s close this soon and move on in life!’.

Like the customers’ 5 steps, brands need to realize that they had 5 opportunities to avoid a open letter and something in the process was broken enough to not let that happen easily. That’s a sign for the brands to look inward and set things right, wherever they seem to be broken.

When things go public, brands have a few chocies.

One, they could see it as an opportunity to set things right in public view and win brownie points for being a customer focused company AFTER being admonished in public for not being so in the first place. Nothing really wrong here – you know, shit happens… the best of products and services go for a toss. It is how the brand treats a customer when it does… is what matters. If they care enough for the customer, they’d have it in their process to make things right as fast as possible and in the most polite, humane way. That would make a very happy customer who would in turn tell a lot of other people the experience.

But, this comes with a few riders. Whatever the brand is doing has to be scalable. It cannot afford to go out of the way in satisfying customers in full public view, else everybody with that problem seek the same treatment. Or, at the very least, if the brand can explain the reason why it went out of the way in satisfying a customer logicaly (using severity of problem as a criteria), then they have something to stem the negativity spreading from biased treatment.

Second, brands could see open letters as a temporary blip and choose to ignore the whole thing as something that would pass. They actually do, in reality.

Third, they could put it in the ‘system’ of normal customer care and treat it like any serious escalation and resolve the issue. This is perhaps the best possible scenario for scalable resolution, but works only when the brand’s processes are well established to deal with multiple levels of escalation.

Fourth, most importantly, is to assess the groundswell’s extent. Usually, open letters bring in more feedback on the same negative tone (and relatively less positive opinions unless the brand has really earned it all this while!) and becomes a magnet of sorts in accumulating many negative opinions in one place. Jay Shah had comments enabled and you can see many others reacting to the post with their own negative experiences on Air France. In comparison, Sushant and Ram’s posts do not have a provision for comments and hence the negative reactions are best appended to multiple places where people share it on their own. So, a Facebook post by one person who is sharing the open letter with his friends may attract experiences in that post’s comments section alone. But yes, one such influential person with a lot of followers means the action moves to his forum rather than the original blog and that becomes the magnet of negative experiences.

Brands need to be on top of this spreading-game to decide on an appropriate course of action. Failure to track the spread is not negotiable these days at all, given the kind of tools at their disposal and a reasonable evolution in knowing the clout and influence of people.

What does an open letter do to sales/perception of brands?

Can a public whine and rant impact sales? There may be limited means to corroborate impact on sales over long periods of time and attribute them to one open letter.

But what open letters can perhaps do is impact purchase consideration.

As customers, we take in several parameters to decide on a product or service. This is a finely meshed process and many small things impact the ranking we have given ourselves for multiple brands and eventually impact a purchase. Some of the most common parameters include price, availability, customization, color, ease of purchase etc. We add feedback/opinion from trusted sources to this mix. And then feedback from trusted strangers to this mix (via Google search, perhaps – a friend of a friend, with a well written opinion, perhaps!). Then, there are untrusted strangers – random individuals online with an opinion. Every small detail matters and aids in the consideration process. Except, of course, in the case of Mactards for whom nothing really matters… oooh, look, another shiny new Apple thingy – here, take my credit card. (I’m a recent convert myself, so don’t hold this against me!).

Open letters, depending on how well they are written and how much they spread, can fall under ‘trusted strangers’ and impact consideration. So, the next time you need to fly and Air France is an option, you won’t immediately go, ‘Oh, Jay Shah had a massive issue so I’m not going to fly Air France at all… ever!’. A more reasonable reaction would be, ‘Of the 4 options I have, Air France seems to be the best in terms of time I’ll save between flights. But having heard Jay Shah’s problems, let me cross check once more and perhaps opt for the next best option.’

Sidin’s joke on this best sums up a customer’s reaction,

But again, perception (which impacts consideration), like sales, is not easy to measure in tangible terms (beyond surveys with limited sets of users, of course). Coupled with the fact that things are forgotten eventually, brands could sit out on open letters too – that is a valid reaction worth exploring too, but with a view on the opportunity cost of solving the problem vs. losing out on perception in the short-medium-long term!

The original post was published here.

Author bio: Karthik Srinivasan is a communications specialist who moonlights at http://www.beastoftraal.com and has a day-job as national lead, Social@Ogilvy India.

  • Ujesh P

    Ha, look who’s hunting for social media jobs at Volkswagen & Air France now! Karthik, you’d be better off writing a blog on “Blogging your way to new jobs”!

  • palesgate

    thank you master
    http://www.palesgate.com