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What we can learn from Oprah’s Swiss experience


A few key lessons all brands can take away from Ms Winfrey's unpleasant experience in Switzerland.

August 13, 2013 2:31 by

Even if you’ve been living under a rock this week, chances are you’ve still been keeping abreast of the latest developments surrounding the Oprah Winfrey-Swiss boutique incident.

If you haven’t, here’s a quick recap: The world’s most famous talk show host – worth roughly US$2.8 billion – walks into a boutique in Switzerland and asks the woman behind the counter to show her a handbag that she spotted.

The sales attendant responds by (allegedly) saying: “No, it’s too expensive. You will not be able to afford that.” Clearly she had no idea who Oprah is and, according to Winfrey, made the judgment based on the colour of her skin.

The ‘Queen of Talk’ told this story during an interview on Entertainment Tonight, where she expressed her bewilderment at the whole situation.

Since then Oprah has tweeted about it, both the store owner and the Swiss Tourism Authority have given out swift and seemingly sincere apologies and the aforementioned sales attendant has gone public to dismiss the entire incident as a mere “misunderstanding”.

With the help, suggestions and feedback of our readers, communications professionals and PR executives, we’ve listed a few obvious lessons that brands and companies can learn from this incident:

– Consumers will voice their dissatisfaction: We are no longer powerless and brands can no longer scream their promotional messages. In short, it’s no longer a monologue but a dialogue. Social media is anything but private and all it takes to ruin a reputation is for one disgruntled customer to voice their unhappiness online. You can no longer keep things private and sweep problems under the rug. Consumers will say both bad and good things about you publicly. Accept this and make the best of it.

– Listen: Don’t assume you know what’s best for your customers. More than ever, consumers have a loud and powerful voice. They’re savvy and, for the most part, they know what they want. Listen and pay attention to feedback and remember that, as Bill Gates once said: “Your most unhappy customers are your best source of learning.”

– If you ‘screw up’, apologise: Believe it or not, customers are rather forgiving and understanding, particularly when companies bother to make heart-felt apologies. In fact, Oprah did tweet that, aside from the “handbag diss”, she had a great time in Switzerland. It’s also important to be quick with your apology. The longer you delay it, the less sincere it will appear. Of course, the Swiss Tourism Authority can’t possibly apologise to every unhappy customer, but a business owner certainly can – and should.

– Everybody’s a celebrity: This time it was Oprah, a powerful woman with millions of fans and followers. However, since many of us are so well connected across digital platforms, it’s easy enough for our messages to become viral as well. A recent case in point would be when du (a Dubai-based telecom provider) decided to hike the prices of its services without informing customers. Once a resident found out by accident, others took to Twitter and Facebook and expressed their outrage and, within hours, the company had apologised. The mandatory price increase was also retraced within days.

– Be quick to make a statement: If you are convinced that you’ve done something wrong, then by all means apologise and mean it. If you haven’t gathered all the facts, then make a statement saying so. There’s nothing wrong with a company saying: “We don’t know yet and we will look into this matter.” But you must respond quickly because the internet waits for no one. Since the sales assistant quickly went public and dismissed the entire situation as a misunderstanding, one could say the story has arguably backfired against Winfrey. However, since both the store and the Tourism Authority were very quick to flesh out an apology, the ball’s in her court now.

– Deny accusations: While this should ideally be done in a classy, sensitive and timely manner – there’s nothing wrong with a business negating accusations. Sure, customers are always right, but are they? If you are convinced there’s been a misunderstanding, then be prepared to make that known.

If you have any other key lessons worth mentioning, feel free to contribute in the comment section below.

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