The Anatomy of a Social Media Nightmare Averted – A Case Study

Posted on December 14, 2009

Adorable Toot, The Junkyard Dog Of Social Media Nightmares The Anatomy of a Social Media Nightmare Averted – A Case Study

You are the social media strategist for Sears Hometown Stores. It’s Friday, the end of a long day, at the end of a long week. You are ready for a refreshing and well deserved cocktail to start your weekend. Heck, maybe two.

You make one last pass at your social media listening dashboard before you head out the door, and you come across your worst nightmare:

* A picture of a cute little dog named Toot.

* A story about a tragic accident where your delivery truck runs over and kills Toot.

* Details about how a local representative of your company apologized, but then went on to tell the distraught pet owners it was not his delivery guy’s fault, but theirs. It keeps getting better. He tells this to them not just once, but on two separate occasions.

* All this is on a website called, and here is where your heart skips a beat and your blood runs cold,

* And oh, it’s blowing-up on Reddit, Twitter, and the Internet at large.

You are Shaunak Dave, the director, multi-channel integration for Sears Hometown Stores. That well deserved cocktail is going to have to wait …and you might want to remember to breathe again.

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The Incident

Peggy* and David* bought a freezer a little while before Thanksgiving from the Sears Hometown Store in Dripping Springs, Texas. With the promise of free home delivery they had it sent to the house.

When the delivery truck arrived at their home, Maxwell, known as Toot by his family, ran out to investigate the new visitor as he had done many times before. As the truck was coming to a stop in the driveway Peggy and David heard a loud yelp. Toot was fatally injured. He died shortly afterwards.

An Apology Mishandled

Wanting to find some closure on a tragic event, Peggy went to the Sears Hometown Store in Dripping Springs to talk with the owner about what happened. (Unlike the big mall stores that most of us know, this Sears business unit works more like a franchise.)

The owner apologized, but instead of stopping there he went on to say that that his store was not at fault, and the driver had cautiously pulled forward in the driveway, that most dogs would have moved out of the way, and that Toot’s owners were fundamentally at fault for letting the dog out of the house and into the front yard.

Peggy was stunned at the owner’s position. Instead of finding closure, she now felt a number of things. None of them very good. None of them were helping her deal with the loss of Toot.

David was troubled by the way he felt the owner had treated his wife. Although a man of few words, he decided to have a few words with the Sears Hometown Store owner.

Unfortunately, the owner was unmoved. David’s experience with the owner mirrored his wife’s first encounter. It was not Sears’s fault. The driver had exercised caution. The dog should have moved. Peggy and David were the responsible party.

Using the owner’s logic, David asked him whose fault would it be if someone backed a car through the Sears Hometown Store wall? Based on what the owner was arguing it wouldn’t be the driver’s fault, but the store’s, right? The owner said that was completely different. The two men were at an impasse. However, the owner promised to call and follow-up.

Peggy and David say the Sears Hometown Store owner never called. Is Born

Frustrated and hurt by a backhanded apology, in their mind no apology at all, and not receiving any further contact from Sears, they decided to get their story out to the public.

David is not a website builder by training, but he has had some experience selling merchandise online, and had learned a few things from doing that. Using his smarts and layman’s knowledge of websites he bought on Wednesday December 9th.

On Thursday December 10th with a few pages that related their experience, and pictures of Toot, the website went live. They told their friends and family about it, and shared the website link and story on Facebook.

December 11th things are going Internet crazy. The website is getting heavy traffic, their story is trending to #1 on Reddit, and The Consumerist article is burning up Twitter. All this was not the response Peggy and David had anticipated or wanted.

This is where we met Shaunak. He is about to ruin a few of his co-worker’s Friday night plans, too.

Sears Hometown Stores’ Customer Service Secret Sauce

Do you know what Shaunak calls dealing with a dissatisfied customer? Friday. No matter how great a company is you are going to have the occasional unhappy customer. It is just another workday for him.

Actually, while this aspect is only a part of his job, Shaunak likes unhappy customers. He really does. When he talks about them you can hear the excitement and passion in his voice. When a customer service problem hits his radar he reaches out to the customer and implements a cutting edge methodology that he has refined to a science. You might want to take notes.

  1. Listen to the customer and understand the problem.
  2. Acknowledge responsibility when appropriate.
  3. Apologize when it’s the right thing to do.
  4. Ask the customer what you can do to make it right.

Now, you might be saying that what Shaunak does is common sense or pretty standard. However, you would be wrong. If you have ever been on the receiving end of an unsympathetic customer service rep you know it is not an uncommon occurrence.

Also, it is astonishing how many company representatives seem oblivious to how a negative customer experience can deeply impact a company. A bad experience an unhappy customer is likely to share with 10 to 20 of their closest friends, and that is before they post it to Facebook or Twitter.

What Shaunak knows from years of experience is that being human works almost 100% of the time. And the reason he likes dissatisfied customers? Those previously dissatisfied customers become the most loyal customers and some of the best brand evangelists. The power of social media in its truest form.

You know what Shaunak calls transforming an angry customer into a brand champion? Friday. However, his Friday is a little different.

Incident Quickly Escalated to Upper Management

Shaunak quickly recognizes the seriousness of the situation and calls a meeting with the key people on the team. The team is concerned with the potential gravity of the situation, but it is also hard not to be touched by its sad nature. Feeling that it is the right thing to do, Will Powell, the business unit president, makes the exceptional decision to talk directly with Peggy and David, a duty usually done by his trusted staff.


Peggy and David were beginning to regret their decision to take the story public. They started getting angry emails calling them names for making such a big deal out of the loss of that little dog. Then they start getting phone calls.

It was probably the call at 3am that pushed them over the edge. David in his unflappable style talked to the man who initially berated them for their website. A sleepy David explained his side of the story. The man softened, then relented, and in the end agreed with what they had done. The guy who was angry enough to track down Peggy and David’s’ number, and call them at 3am, was now a supporter.

It didn’t matter. They had enough. They decided to remove any information that would help people find them from the website, removed the feature that allowed site visitors to send them emails, and stopped answering the phone.

Second Thoughts

Creating was a way for Peggy and David to vent their frustration, tell their story to others, and maybe get Sears’ attention. However, at this point they started to have a nagging feeling that all this aggravation, on top of the loss of Toot, was just not worth it. Then the phone rang. They didn’t answer.

It was Rudy, the director of sales for Sears Hometown Stores, the voicemail said. For the first time they heard someone from Sears say they were very sorry for what happened. Peggy and David had a little moment of relief. Rudy went on to ask if they would be willing to talk to his boss. They were.

The Call

Will Powell shared his heartfelt apology about Peggy and David’s experience and at the loss of Toot. Will than asked, perhaps a bit self-consciously, if he could somehow make it up. Would Peggy and David allow Sears to cover the cost of losing Toot, and refund them the cost of the freezer? He clarified that it was not his intention to buy their silence. He just wanted to make things as right as best he could.

David offered to take the site down. Will told him it was not his intention to have them change what they were saying, stop telling their story, or to influence the website. He just wanted to do what he could to make amends for a sad and unfortunate situation.

Peggy and David were in a state of disbelief and overwhelmed. They now had several sincere apologies from Sears, received an unexpected and generous offer of restitution, and the president of Sears Hometown Stores had just declined to take David up on his offer to remove the embarrassingly named website,

David shut down the next day.

Sears Adds Their Voice To The Conversation

The team promptly drafts an update of how the issue had been resolved. Shaunak contacts The Consumerist, whose post was being retweeted with great speed. He tried to post Sears Hometown Stores’ update in the comments section, but it does not appear.

He then tries to reach the editors, but is unable to make contact. When he does reach them he is pleasantly surprised that how professional they are. In fact they want to include Sears’ response in the story itself.

Statement that appeared on The Consumerist

I am in Marketing at Sears Hometown Stores based in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

We are very sorry about the loss of the dog of a devoted Sears customer. As soon as we heard about this (which was at 5 PM CT on Dec-11-2009), our team acted swiftly to contact the customer who purchased the freezer from our Hometown Store in Dripping Springs, Texas. In fact, Will Powell, our business unit President, spoke to the customer just before 7 PM CT on Dec-11-2009 and extended our apologies and the customer graciously accepted.

As a symbol of our deep regret for the accident, we offered to reimburse him for the cost of his dog as well as to refund the original sale. Unfortunately, accidents happen and both the customer and Sears did a great job starting the path for reconciliation and, at this point, both the customer and Sears consider the issue resolved. (Originally a link to Peggy and David’s update on their website acknowledging their appreciation to Sears and that the situations had been resolved.)

Contacting Key Influencers

After the update posts in The Consumerist article, Shaunak identifies people with the most influence who have tweeted the link or otherwise have promoted the story and sends them a link with the update. While putting an up a response is the right action, the team’s decisions to make the extra effort and have it posted by a third party is brilliant. It lends extra credibility because it is 3rd party, and everyone who finds that article afterward sees it.

What Sears Hometown Stores Team Did Right

  • The incident was quickly escalated to upper management.
  • Filters for the new search terms were immediately set-up and tracked. (Note: Shaunak uses Radian6.)
  • A team was quickly assembled that had all the skill sets needed to respond and the authority to make decisions in real time.
  • All available data was collected.
  • All involved parties were contacted for input.
  • The team made their best effort to understand the problem with what they knew at the time.
  • A course of action was decided, and then immediately implemented.
  • Senior management reached out to Peggy and David, asked what they could do to make it right, and then went beyond the customer’s expectation.
  • Sears asked for nothing in return for the restitution they offered, and did not try to influence Peggy and David’s free speech.
  • Drafted a brief statement with the situation’s facts and its resolution. They did not include any personal details about the customers.
  • Posted the resolution update on key websites that had reported the story.
  • Contacted the top influencers involved with the story with the updated status.
  • Management made it personal.
  • All of the above took place within a couple hours from when the incident become known to Shaunak.

What Sears Hometown Stores Team Did Wrong

  • Nothing.


Maxwell "Toot"

If you asked what Peggy and David would say about their experience you would hear mixed feelings. While they received negative criticism about their website which hurt, they are clearly touched by Sears’ outreach. If it wasn’t for the sad loss of a precious member of the family, they might almost say it was a positive experience. But, in the end it wasn’t; Toot is gone. Understandably, Peggy and David are ready to close this chapter and move on, which is why they accepted the offer not to use their real names for the post.

Acknowledgment and Full Disclosure

I did not intend to write a post at first. My interest was professional curiosity. I appreciate Shaunak reaching out, and then generously answering my many questions about team’s thought process on how they responded to this situation. He is clearly a very smart guy who loves the company he works for, and drinks the social media Kool-Aid, too. A fellow traveler, indeed. I only hope Sears realize that his response and guidance was outstanding, and that he is due for a raise.

Peggy and David were done talking about this issue, but in a moment of kindness decided to respond to my request to talk about their experience, and then bigheartedly answered all my questions until I ran out of steam. I’m grateful for their willingness to share their story, and my heart goes out to them for their loss.

While I told everyone I spoke to that I might write a blog post, large parts of this post came from those informal conversations. I reserve the right to rewrite or edit the text should any source feel that I have misrepresented the facts.

* The names of the website owners have been replaced with pseudonyms at their request.

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