I listen to NPR all the time and one of my favorite shows is Marketplace Money .  These folks are smart, savvy and easy to understand – it’s a great place to catch up on my financial news and hear what’s up in the consumer market.  This weekend, they ran their normal “Getting Personal” segment and I was, once again, humbled by the new world order that any business with customers needs to understand – NOW.

During this segment of the show, listeners call in with questions that might be about business, finance, taxes, insurance, consumer issues, etc, etc.  This week’s segment caught my attention as the second caller was a high school student named Fiona from Sacramento, CA.  Fiona spoke with David Lazarus, a consumer columnist for the LA Times along with the show’s host, Tess Vigeland, about her dissatisfaction with Starbucks.  Seems Fiona has two Starbucks stores within a mile of each other near her house – one sells breakfast sandwiches and one does not – and Fiona wanted to know why.  She called the Starbucks customer service line and got the brush off, tried to contact market research, a non-starter.  Then David Lazarus got into the act and called corporate headquarters to find the answer for her.  Even he was unable to get a cogent response.

Predictably, you can guess what happened next.  If you are a business owner, a corporate executive, a customer service rep, a PR person or in marketing, are you wincing yet??  After discussing the lack of customer service on air for a good 5 minutes, David Lazarus suggested Fiona copy the link from the show once it was available online (Getting Personal) and send it to Starbucks to see if that got their attention – OUCH!  Tess Vigeland invited Fiona back to report the outcome – OUCH, OUCH!  I know we’ve all heard it before, the customer service story that makes news, goes viral and has direct business impact.  This is the stuff of business myth and legends.

Of course, this is nothing new; it’s been around since business began.  It used to be word of mouth (I tell ten friends, they tell ten friends, etc, etc – until the whole town knew about it).  But with the rise of social media and online communities – the volume level of customers is amplified exponentially in today’s virtual environment.  That amplification is explosive, reducing the potential time from consumer-service-hero to customer-service-shame to nanoseconds.  Couple this with customers that are more educated, more empowered and just plain louder and you have service opportunities that must be managed everywhere.

I believe Starbucks can certainly fix this very easily – contacting Fiona and the Marketplace Money folks ASAP with a big, sincere, well-publicized mea culpa is certainly a start.  Working to fix the internal communication problem wouldn’t hurt either.  Most reasonable people understand we all make mistakes. Most reasonable consumers are willing to forgive if someone comes clean and admits they blew it.  But in an age where things move at the speed of light and fickle consumer sentiment can change quickly, brand integrity is built or broken by bits and bytes.  And when there is no strategic plan for managing your online brand or if you try to ignore this venue, you miss huge opportunities and could find yourself in a virtual, yet avoidable, PR nightmare (just ask Tiger Woods).  What would you prefer – a proactive or reactive approach?  Here’s what I say: be the hero, Starbucks, call Fiona and invite her over for a breakfast sandwich – today.