Airtel bigotry controversy: Did the telecom giant just make things worse?

Communication experts say that the recent Airtel controversy on Twitter is a lesson for consumer-facing brands to rejig their customer support and make it more apt for social media

e4m by Madhuwanti Saha
Updated: Jun 21, 2018 8:54 AM

Telecom giant Airtel that was on the receiving end of a fiasco for the past few days (over its response to a woman’s tweet with communal overtones requesting for a Hindu customer service representative) tried clearing the air with a detailed response on Twitter. Titled ‘Did Airtel Really Bow Down to a Discriminatory Request? Maybe You Should Read This", the telecom player defended itself by saying that both its representatives were simply doing their jobs. The heavy dose of sarcasm in the response has not gone unmissed.

It all started on Monday when Airtel user Pooja Singh took to Twitter to air her grievance, which was first responded to by one of Airtel’s social media team member named Shoaib. She then replied with a tweet asking for a Hindu representative. Her query was then responded to by an executive named Gaganjot within half an hour, throwing Twitterati into a tizzy. As a result none of the parties were spared.

Here’s what happened on Twitter:

The fact that the customer care didn’t address the core issue of bigotry reflects the sad state of affairs of the social media team of a consumer-facing brand like Airtel.

In response to the controversy, Airtel posted on Twitter on Wednesday, “We are still trying to wrap our head around how one colleague responding on behalf of another is misconstrued as our 'acceptance of discrimination'. We did not and we repeat DID NOT change the advisor because of the unfathomable request from the said customer.”

But experts we spoke with feel that this also exposes the entire mechanical system as it’s a provocation on the end of the consumer. Could this have been better approached? Also does the scenario call for a rejig of customer-care centre, strictly speaking from a social media perspective?

Karthik Srinivasan, Communications consultant on digital/social media marketing & PR:

The least the company could have done is realize how it will be seen from a public perspective, particularly in that sequence of tweets. This is a basic expectation from teams that say things on behalf of brands.

Airtel did delay the response enormously letting the outrage fester. The response, after five hours, was categorical and they could have let it go with that. Today's letter tries to be too-clever (particularly the sign-off line) and doesn't acknowledge the fact that Airtel has added something to its process of handling customer queries, if at all they did. The tone of the letter is clearly dramatic, and not explanatory or repentant. Still, I notice that this manipulative response is also gaining decent traction and kudos, so if it works for Airtel in the long run, good for them. And I hope they have added this scenario to their scripts in customer care.

The social media care team is only trained in customer care basics, not in PR basics. That's a blunder. Social media responses are many-to-many communication and are public. So, the front line teams posting anything on behalf of the brand need to be cognizant of PR perspectives when they frame their responses. In this case, it looks to anyone seeing it on Twitter, that Airtel ignored a bigoted comment by a customer, and moved on to the resolution without even acknowledging that one of their employees has been subjected to something horrible. Other brands have been at the receiving end of similar comments but they have come out well in such situations. It's a big miss that a brand like Airtel couldn't, in the first instance.

 Saurabh Uboweja, CEO, Brands of Desire 

There are three parts to it. The customer support system was clearly not trained to recognise that it was a provocation. This is one major issue. The second is they were not able to preempt it and the crisis happened. How do you manage the crisis now? Also they took a little bit of more time than they should have.

It looks like completely in defence of Airtel not in defence of their stupidity. I wish they had written ‘hey in future we would like to sensitise people on provocative situations’.

Airtel lost out on a good opportunity to come across as a really witty and fun brand especially when they were genuinely not at fault. In such a situation they could have given a witty response and made fun of the situation. It lost out on an opportunity to win customers as they were busy managing the crisis first. 

Ronita Mitra, Founder & Chief Strategist, Brand Eagle

There's a definite need for organisations using social media to have clearly articulated policies with its boundaries laid out. Not just a static policy but one that is refreshed and updated regularly. It is essential for employees to be trained regularly, since it eventually boils down to decisions that employees need to take within mere minutes.

There also needs to exist a clear structure with an escalation matrix. Handling
of these sensitive issues requires quick decision making which can be handled better with an escalation matrix in place.

Importantly the social media/digital strategy has to be in sync with the brand identity and brand values so that employees know how to respond in any situation.

The Airtel incident should also be used as a learning by all organisations to tighten their approach towards social media.

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