On-line opinion monitoring – Leisure Report article January 2007

This is an excerpt from my recent Leisure Report article.

If the company wins this contract, its business will double in size. The owners have spent the past six years crafting a business that they believe provides a great service to customers, most of the time. They have invested heavily in people, technology and have a service proposition that has won industry recognition.

Four members of the bid team have collectively spent 56 days honing their proposal to perfection. The bid to operate 13 leisure centres over a 10-year period is submitted with a sense of great anticipation. Two weeks pass and enquiries begin to stream back from the prospective client. Most are routine. However, one enquiry is perplexing. Can the company explain a series of comments posted in an on-line discussion forum about service and safety concerns at their leisure centre in Cardiff? It transpires that an on-line debate is raging about a message entitled: ‘Profit before safety at Cardiff leisure centre’. Three months earlier, a gym user was found unconscious next to a treadmill late one Sunday evening. She was taken to hospital and discharged the following day with bruising to her face and rib cage. It subsequently emerged that the gym was unsupervised on Sunday evenings between 6-9pm, as part of a recent staffing review. Eighty-one people had posted 405 on-line messages regarding the incident. Most people thought it was an accident waiting to happen and symptomatic of a cultural shift since the outsourcing of the centre. The injured user had been so incensed by the slightly dismissive reply to her letter (the company alleging that she had fallen after fiddling with the sound on her iPod), that she set up a protest web site (her partner was a web site designer). She posted pictures of her injuries and published the Managing Director’s letter. The web site had a discussion forum, which some centre staff began using to anonymously post comments about budget cuts. Google was soon featuring the web site when people searched under the centre’s name. As you can imagine, cautious optimism about the new business pitch quickly turned to a sinking inevitability that their response to the prospective client was not going to be convincing.

Welcome to the world of on-line sentiment where the power of publishing resides in anyone with access to a computer and a burning desire to rave or rage about a company.

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