The LeafFilter saga, Part 2: How I used consumer power to get what I deserved

Yesterday, I told the story of how LeafFilter failed to show up for three appointments — and never called me — when scheduled to perform service at my house in Maine. I described the events from November 1 to December 9, when I’d finally had it with the company and was prepared to tell the story of their disappointing service on every possible consumer review site.

But before I did that, I wanted to see what would happen with my tweet about the LeafFilter’s failures.

LeafFilter’s customer service had actually responded to the tweet, asking for more details.

Social Media as a customer service channel

In my 2008 book Groundswell — and the revised edition published in 2011 — I talked about how companies could listen to social media and use it as a support channel. I researched people like Frank Eliason, the groundbreaking support manager at Comcast who created a quick-response team that identified problems posted in social media and heading them off before they became a threat to the company. (Given the number of customers disappointed with Comcast, that was a crucially important job.)

Why take a few complaints so seriously? Because, as Pete Blackshaw wrote in his accurately titled book, Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000. More recently, Jay Baer explained the massive business value in engaging with your detractors in his groundbreaking book Hug Your Haters. Frank Eliason has his own book about it, too. It turns out that what happens when a company fails is even more important that how it behaves when it succeeds. LeafFilter’s team in Maine was under lots of stress, but it had failed to invest in customer communication — which made a bad situation worse and threatened the brand.

Social media customer support has matured in the 13 years since Charlene Li and I started talking about it. Typically now, customer service programs include a social response team that responds just as LeafFilter did, making private connections with customers and solving their problems.

Since I’m a curious person, I decided to respond and see what LeafFilter’s social media team would do — before I posted anything to consumer rating sites. I could always go nuclear later. I didn’t have much hope, but this was looking like an interesting possible case study. So I sent them the information they requested, including my email address, and waited to see what would happen.

LeafFilter responds

I got an immediate response from Haven on the LeafFilter social media team, which I expected. Haven said I’d be hearing from someone.

But it wasn’t the social media team that contacted me next. A fairly senior executive at LeafFilter, who I’ll call X, called me within hours of sharing my information in the Twitter direct message. (X has requested that I do not reveal their name.)

I had requested that anyone responding follow up with me, not with my wife, even though it was her phone number and contact information that was in their system. So I was pleased when they did as I asked and called me directly.

X and I had a very friendly and open conversation. X apologized for the trouble the company had caused me (the first sincere apology I received). We talked about the labor challenges they were having, especially in Maine. We also talked about my background as an author writing about social media and marketing.

While I cannot be certain, I am betting that X and the LeafFilter social media team determined that not only did a have a moderately large social media following, but that I wrote books about social media and customer service and had a blog with millions of views. (it’s pretty easy to Google me, find my blog, check me out on LinkedIn, and figure out what sort of background and reputation I have.) This may have contributed to the respect they showed me on that call, or perhaps X is just naturally very empathetic when dealing with consumers suffering service problems.

X emailed me the next day to tell me that a senior customer service director from the corporate office — let’s call him David — was currently visiting the Maine office and would soon be getting in touch with me.

LeafFilter recovers

David did indeed call me. And he was very sympathetic to my situation. He wanted to know what he could do for me — after all, they couldn’t give me my money back, as I’d never paid them a down payment, and they couldn’t give me back the time spent waiting.

I told David that all I wanted, after all of this, was just for somebody to show up and clean my gutters.

And David said that he’d get somebody there to do that on December 15, less than one week after we spoke.

At this point you are probably thinking “Why would you trust them after three missed appointments?” But the conversation with David was very different. It was clear that David understood they’d screwed up, and actually cared about it. And it was also clear that he would much rather deliver the job as promised than read a bunch of bad reviews.

After we discussed the price, I agreed to have them come and put up the gutter on the side of the house, as originally planned, since it seemed like a fair deal.

I also requested a “pain in the ass” discount. That’s not the discount for me being a pain in the ass — because you don’t get a discount for that. It’s the discount for them being such a pain in the ass to deal with and breaking their promises.

David assured me I’d get a break on the price for my trouble.

LeafFilter delivers

David had told me that some people would be dropping off the materials for the gutter on the Sunday before the work was due. Sure enough, a crew from Georgia showed up. But they didn’t just drop off the gutter — they wanted to put it up on the house. Once again, LeafFilter wasn’t doing what was promised — but this time they were doing more than they’d promised. Since we were home anyway, I was happy to show the guys just where and how I wanted it done. They completed the job, quickly and professionally.

I still hadn’t paid anything or even been billed for it.

I decided to reserve judgment until the crew came (or failed to come) to clean the gutters on the following Wednesday as promised.

Sure enough, on Wednesday morning, a guy from North Carolina and his son showed up at my house. They saw the problems that had scared off the previous gutter-clearing crew but had the skills to clean the gutters despite those problems. And they brought a “torch” (“Please don’t burn down my house,” I said) to melt the leaves where they had frozen.

I wondered whether the crew on the ground had any idea what had happened with me, so I asked them. “Yeah,” one of them said. “You’re that Internet guy, right?” So I guess somebody’s message from corporate had trickled all the way down to the workers in the field.

While they were working, I started negotiating the price with David by text message. I was willing to pay for the work at close to the price originally contracted — I’m not a cheapskate — but proposed that they reduce it by $100 for each of the three missed appointments. Since my client rate is about $400 an hour, that seemed reasonable to me.

David wouldn’t agree to that exact discount, but he came pretty close.

My gutters are cleaned, sealed, and reinforced now, there’s a nice new one on the side of the house where the basement used to flood, and they’ve cashed the check.

I won’t be posting on consumer review sites — because I’ve told my story here.

How to get what you deserve

It’s an article of faith that in a standoff between a big company and a single consumer, the big company wins. But social media can change the equation.

I have used this tactic a few times in the last 15 years or so. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But you have to be smart about it.

Do you think I engaged in extortion? In extortion, you threaten to reveal something about a person if they don’t give you money. I certainly threatened to reveal things about LeafFilter, but what I wanted was service, not money. I wanted to give them money. If that’s extortion, it’s a very strange variety.

If you want to use social media to get what you deserve, you should do it ethically. Just because they’ve done you wrong doesn’t mean you can do the same to them. Here are some principles I think you should follow.

  • Always tell the truth. Once you start lying about what company did, you are no better than they are. And lying about what happened on social media channels could actually open you to charges of slander or libel.
  • Don’t berate customer service people. I know you are upset. The customer service people are underpaid and overworked. They’re a lot more likely to help you if you’re nice to them. You can certainly be impatient with them — after all, the company has let you down — but they’re not the source of the problem. In fact, they’re the people most likely to help you find and fix the problem.
  • Be clear on your objective. Do you want an apology? Do you want your money back? Do you want them to fix a problem they caused? Or, as I did, do you want them to deliver on a promise they made? Keep that objective clear in your mind. And look for opportunities to get what you deserve.
  • Be reasonable. A discount on gutter cleaning made sense to me, I had a feeling it would make sense to them. But free gutters and gutter cleaning probably wouldn’t make sense, since they have to pay their crews and the gutters themselves have a cost. There’s no use demanding what a company just can’t afford to do.
  • But be a little unreasonable, too. It helps if they sense that you might cut loose. Think about my father, in yesterday’s post, threatening to smash the mirror on the floor. That was an unreasonable thing to do, but it wasn’t out of line. If my father had threatened to set fire to the store, or I had threatened to sic the local consumer news reporter on LeafFilter, that probably would have been going a bit too far.
  • Don’t say “Do you know who I am?” That’s privilege. I’m not looking for special service. I’m looking for normal levels of service. They’ll find out who I am if they have enough brains to look it up.
  • Post truthful information on public social media networks and name check the company. LeafFilter knew what I was doing and how I was feeling because of the tweets that mentioned them. Instagram would probably work just as well; so would TikTok. I didn’t say they were Nazis and their HQ should be burned down, because that’s not how I feel. I said they didn’t deliver service as promised. A little anger goes a long way, and it’s easy to misinterpret posts on social media.
  • Be precise with threats. The threat to post negative reviews on consumer sites was carefully calibrated to get a response. They don’t want that. Once you post the reviews, you’ve lost the leverage. That’s why I threatened to tell the truth on those sites. They could head that off by providing me with the service I deserved. That felt like the appropriate thing to hold over them.
  • Be aware of who you are dealing with. Threatening to write bad things about Spectrum broadband or Verizon won’t get you all that far, because there are already thousands of complaints about them. Threatening to post negative things about USAA, on the other hand, will probably get an immediate response, because they have a sterling customer service reputation. A quick search on Twitter shows that LeafFilter is not receiving or responding to very many complaints, and a Google search does not turn up many unhappy customers, either. Plus, the company is making many acquisitions and has topped a billion dollars in revenue; they have big ambitions. A company in that situation would like to keep its brand in good shape, so they may be willing to respond to social media criticism.

You’re going to get angry. That’s fine.

The purpose of this effort is not to make them hurt.

The purpose is to make them give you what you deserve.

Keep that in mind and be smart. You’ll be able to turn the tables and get what you ought to, just as I did.

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One Comment

  1. I’m glad that it worked out, Josh. I’m with you: Your reputation and stature invariably played a role. Sadly, I have had to play the Ron Burgundy card a few times. Ideally, a company would treat all of each customer equally—especially if it had screwed up so often as was the case with you.