Thinking Tech

Boeing learns a Suzy lesson the hard way

Posting in Design

However someone connects with your company -- whether it's a Tweet, or a blog post, or an e-mail, or a simple letter, they expect to be treated as a human being. They deserve to be treated that way. You need to make certain you're staffed to handle that.

Companies that expect to be treated as persons under the law need to act like people when consumers contact them.

Boeing learned that lesson the hard way last week.

It blew off 8-year old Harry Winsor with a nasty form letter, after the kid submitted a crayon drawing of a plane he wanted the company to build.

What they didn't know was the kid's dad is John Winsor, a blogger and expert on the use of social media in ad campaigns. (The picture is from Mr. Winsor's blog.)

Winsor gave Boeing a big black eye because the company failed to learn what marketing expert Jim Sterne, back in the 1990s, called the "Suzy" lesson.

It seems that back when the Web was young a company hired a college intern, name Suzy, and set her to work in their customer relations department.

She opened their Web site's main mailbox and found a bunch of complaint letters. She investigated them, found who was responsible to each consumer, and sent out hand-typed messages signed "Suzy."

When Suzy went back to school the company was inundated with complaints. Consumers wanted answers, personal answers. They wanted Suzy back.

Fortunately this was a smart company. They put a bunch of customer service staff to work on the consumers' problems. They followed up within the company. And they signed each response to a complaint letter "Suzy."

Now Boeing is not a consumer products company. Their customers are primarily military people, Congresscritters, and airlines. And this kid didn't even send an e-mail. It was a plain old paper letter -- it was fan mail.

Bu the lesson is the same. The point for our time is it applies to everyone and to every company.

However someone connects with your company -- whether it's a Tweet, or a blog post, or an e-mail, or a simple letter, they expect to be treated as a human being. They deserve to be treated that way. You need to make certain you're staffed to handle that.

In this case the lawyer who got Harry's letter should have known who to send it to, and that person should have sent Harry some pictures of Boeing products that look as much as possible like Harry's drawing, along with an "attaboy" about how Boeing needs Harry, and hopes when he gets his aeronautical engineering degree he'll come work for them.

No consumer is truly powerless in today's world, and big companies must understand that. We're all a Tweet away from burning your reputation, so it pays to have people on staff who can connect with us to prevent horror shows like this.

Look at the possible benefit. John Winsor is proud of his son for getting such a great response and writes a blog post praising Boeing, with pictures of Boeing jets direct from Boeing PR. Boeing is flooded with love and, next time the company needs friends it has them.

Sound far-fetched? Maybe Harry brings his attaboy to school and the teacher has all the kids draw planes for Boeing to respond to. Maybe Boeing then sponsors a team from Harry's town at USFirst, the kids' engineering competition started by Segway creator DrewDean Kamen. Whose finals are at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Which I cover.

No, it's not far-fetched. Every customer contact is both a warning and an opportunity. Seize the opportunity and you won't get burned.

Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure