If you've had doubts about how the Web, and especially the blogosphere, has affected the relationship between companies and customers, look no further than David Berlind's recent exchange with a T-Mobile customer service rep that he recorded and put up on the 'Net.
The 13 minute call, which David recorded (and told the rep he was recording) shows a pompous, egotistical, and sometimes surly customer service rep berating David for not reading the terms and conditions of the service (does anyone read them?) and systematically refusing to listen to the real problem.
David posted a copy of the call at Between the Lines where it garnered hundreds of comments, many of which recounted similar tails of woe.
After all of this, and too late to avoid the black eye, T-Mobile issued an apology and refunded David's money.
Not every blogger has the reach of ZDNet, but many do and a good post can get noticed quickly, linked to by blogs with lots of readers, read by thousands, and cause a company real trouble.
The truth of the matter is that your customers are probably talking about your company right now. You can't control what they say. That's leaves two options: ignore what they're saying or join the conversations. The first option probably isn't good for business. How can you be part of the conversation?
The first step is to see what people are saying. Blog search tools like Technorati can help you find blogs that mention your company or products. For more sophisticated strategies, tools like KnowNow's ESS, which I reviewed for InfoWorld earlier this month.
On the pro-active side, many companies are starting blogs of their own. It's not very effective to just have the PR department start a blog and post company press releases there. This isn't joining a conversation, it's talking at people the same way companies have done for decades.
A better strategy is to encourage your employees to blog. A product team or an individual developer, blogging about their product, can be extremely effective in joining the conversations happening in the blogosphere and speaking with an authentic voice.
You might be worried about your employees blogging, but they're going to do it anyway. Why not take advantage of it? I think it's important that companies establish blogging policies early. Your policy will reflect your corporate culture, but you should err on the side of looser rather than stricter policies. Strict policies will stifle the activity you're trying to encourage.