Customer complaints are nothing new. Managers and customer service representatives regularly listen to concerns and feedback from customers. But what was once handled privately in person or over the phone is now more commonly blasted on the Internet. And while the number of negative reviews and public complaints online is far too large for each one to make a significant impact or garner great attention, there are some that catch the attention of the public and go viral, impacting the business and often, the customer.

Such is the case for Kilroy’s Bar N’ Grill and their customer, Holly Jones.

The Kilroy’s Facebook Rant Gone Viral

On New Year’s Eve, a customer of Kilroy’s Bar N’ Grill in downtown Indianapolis became frustrated because her meal was ruined and she had difficulties with her bill after “watching a dead person being wheeled out from an overdose.” But a response from the bar’s manager revealed that the customer’s complaint wasn’t entirely true, as the “overdosing junkie” was a 70+ year old woman who had a heart attack while dining with her family.

The manager pointed out that the experience was far more traumatizing for the heart attack sufferer than other diners, and explained that getting the woman medical attention was a higher priority than explaining the customer’s bill. He also mentioned that the customer made a server cry — and encouraged the customer to never return to the bar again.

The manager’s response went viral, garnering thousands of likes, comments, and interaction on Facebook and other social media. The response from fans was overwhelmingly supportive for the bar manager, and negative for the customer.

Why the Kilroy’s Rant Went Viral

Customers complain publicly every day, and not all of them have reasonable complaints, but rarely do we see customer service exchanges go viral like this. The conversation between this customer and the manager really struck a chord, and that garnered unprecedented attention.

“I think many people can relate to this NYE event, because at some point, some snobby, selfish person made a scene while intoxicated,” says Curtis Boyd, CEO and founder of Future Solutions Media. “It also shows how someone presumed to know something when in fact, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Now we finally get to vent about it!”

Social Media is Changing the Customer Conversation Dynamic

This incident illustrates how customer conversations are increasingly changing, particularly in a public forum. Complaints that were once handled between two individuals are now public and up for trial in the online court of opinion. And in a stark contrast to traditional media’s “on your side” style of consumer reports, on social media, it’s not always the business that is found to be in the wrong.

For decades, businesses were often assumed to be the big bad guys in any customer dispute, but now that customers have more power — and some are clearly abusing it — increasingly, public opinion is turning sour for customers who are not always right.

“The fact that it was done publicly on Facebook as a review shows a very real dynamic between the business liason and a customer,” explains Boyd. “Businesses have been learning from surveys and reviews how to improve their own business for years. Now that responding to reviews is becoming more common practice, maybe consumers can learn a lesson from this too in regards to entitlement.”

Steve Hatmaker, Jr., digital marketing strategist for Seismic Audio Speakers agrees that there are serious implications for social media’s ability to amplify customer complaints. “Until recently, companies could do you wrong or right and you would be limited to telling only those you knew in your immediate surroundings,” he says. “But thanks to the Internet and the unlimited access to almost anyone, such an event can easily be spread around the world in seconds! The Internet is much like the halls of a high school: one false move and everyone will know about it the next day.”

The Lesson for Businesses

Perhaps the biggest lesson here is that we’re no longer in the era of “the customer is always right.” While it’s still wise to err on the side of grace for customers, there are some incidents, such as this one, that businesses do not have to roll over on. Done well under the right circumstances, it can be advantageous to strongly defend your business against customers who you believe to be wrong.

“I think now that brands are more aware of the conversations taking place online, we’ll see more businesses retaliate against false claims,” says Brandon Seymour, owner of Beymour Consulting. “This incident proved that it’s not only the brand whose reputation is at stake but also the consumer.”

Still, this doesn’t mean it’s wise to spout off smart remarks to customers in the hopes that your post will go viral, and online support for your business will explode. A disrespectful response is ultimately very dangerous whether you’re right or wrong.

While the manager’s response was clearly a win, it was not without risk. It involved crude language and personal attacks, which is not recommended when responding to reviews or dealing with customers in any way. But in this case, it seems that the public understood both the casual nature of the business and the emotion involved on the manager’s side. And ultimately, the manager’s response illustrated that the employees handled the situation as they should have.

Whatever your response, it’s important that your conversations with customers remain true to the values of your business. In this case, Kilroy’s demonstrated a high priority for the safety of their customers that the public can respect — and they did.

The Lesson for Individuals

While the Kilroy’s incident is one that businesses should learn from, the bigger lesson here is for individuals, as it illustrates the small town effect of the Internet and what it can do to your reputation. While the Kilroy’s manager is enjoying hero status, the customer, Holly Jones, has suffered serious blows to her personal reputation.

When the response went viral, Jones shut down her social media accounts. Later, she was let go from her job at a salon in Indianapolis. The salon also received negative feedback from the incident, though no one other than Jones was involved. And unfortunately, the customer is not the only Holly Jones facing backlash, as others with her name in Indianapolis have been targeted with death threats and hateful messages.

“It’s indisputable that the Internet has forced us to live in what is now the reputation capital age,” relates Carrie Wick, head of global PR with Ekomi Group. “We live in a world where reputation is now our valuable commodity while transparency and trust serve as our currency.”

In incidents such as this, it’s clear that not everyone understands just how valuable reputation can be — and how much it hurts when your reputation is damaged. “People also underestimate the power of word of mouth and its viral consequences,” she says. “It takes ONE person to shatter a reputation in mere milliseconds. It doesn’t take being famous or being an influencer to make waves in a public forum or via the media.”

“Social media certainly does incline itself to crusades,” says Fit Small Business communications manager Michael X. Heiligenstein. “Incidents such as this one give us clear heroes, victims, and villains, and a business that goes above and beyond its responsibilities is likely to come out well.

Heiligenstein also points out that there can be innocent reputation victims in these situations, such as the other Holly Jones that dealt with the fallout completely unrelated to her. “In today’s world, your reputation can be at stake whether or not you did anything wrong,” he warns.

What This Means for Individuals Protecting Their Reputation

Reviews and online customer communication are no longer just a high stakes game for businesses. As this incident illustrates, they can negatively (or positively) influence customers as well. Does this mean you should avoid airing your opinion online? Not necessarily, say experts, but do practice caution and responsibility.

“Perhaps it’s a lesson for the future to exercise a certain level of decorum,” says Wick. “Consider consequences and evaluate delivery. After all, what goes around may come back around and we truly live in small circles here. With personal and permanent reputations at stake, more thoughtful consideration is certainly key.”

Seymour recommends caution as well: “I think the lesson to be learned here is for consumers to use online reviews responsibly,” he says. “Although online review sites have given consumers a voice and pushed more brands to be accountable for their actions and quality of service, many consumers abuse these platforms and use them to
post false and/or exaggerated claims.”

Does Jones deserve the backlash she’s getting? Seymour doesn’t think so. “We’re only human, and we all make mistakes,” he says. “But it’s still a great cautionary tale of how online reviews can work both ways.”

As for Kilroy’s, they’ve enjoyed tremendous support. The “overdosing junkie” survived her heart attack, and thanks to the attention the incident has received, a Go Fund Me campaign for her medical expenses has far exceeded its goal.