Last month Oprah Winfrey attended Tina Turner's wedding in Switzerland and got dealt some Euro-prejudice while shopping at a high-end retail store in Zurich. A saleswoman at Trois Pommes, incredibly, refused to let one of the world's most recognizable and wealthy women inspect a $38,000 handbag, oblivious at the time to the immediate danger she was creating for her employer's brand. News of the slight emerged during a recent interview Winfrey conducted with Entertainment Tonight: "I go into a store and I say to the woman, 'Excuse me, may I see the bag right above your head?' and she says to me, 'No. It's too expensive.'"
Big mistake. Big! Huge!
Trois Pommes, now stuck in a worldwide brand crisis, would do well to follow the lead of Hermes, which similarly jilted Oprah in 2005. The result of that incident? After an initial response that reeked of arrogance, Hermes eventually acquiesced and had a spokesperson appear on Oprah's former television show to officially apologize and share the company's new sensitivity training program with her viewers. And so, Hermes exists today.
Trois Pommes is headed for a sensitivity training program too. It just doesn't realize it yet, because it hasn't taken the time to listen to its customer, Winfrey, or to the increasing chatter in social media circles and on popular review sites, like Foursquare. Brands that listen to local customer sentiment from the myriad feedback channels that exist today and take action on that feedback are changing the customer service landscape, improving the customer experience across the board.
So far, Trois Pommes' strategy has been to put its head in the sand, ignoring its customer feedback and as a result, leaving itself exposed.
Trudie Goetz, owner of the Trois Pommes chain and spokeswoman for the brand, first tried to defend her employee in an interview with the Guardian, and claimed the Winfrey flap was a simple misunderstanding by stating, "my salesperson wanted to give her the handbag in her hand. But she [Winfrey] didn't want to take the bag."
Then Goetz blamed it on a language barrier by claiming, "Her [employee's] English isn't as good as her Italian so it must have been a misunderstanding."
Winfrey carries more Klout than Trois Pommes. Her statement of the incident implied racism, an accusation not taken lightly in the United States. Prejudice against a woman, who according to Forbes earned more than $77 million last year and is worth an estimated $2.8 billion, is not only folly, it is futile, as Hermes learned. At the least, the offending employee should have been terminated, but Goetz has refused to take that step.
"I didn't have anything that said 'I have money': I wasn't wearing a diamond stud. I didn't have a pocketbook. I didn't wear Louboutin shoes. I didn't have anything," said Winfrey during her ET interview. "You should be able to go in a store looking like whatever you look like and say, 'I'd like to see this.' That didn't happen."
The Internet supports what happens in the brick and mortar world and vice versa. Listening to customer wants, complaints, etc., used to be as simple as listening to the customer in-store, on a personal level. Today, we are in a hurry as a society, in love with our smartphones and some of us thrive on posting our commentary on social media platforms, especially if there is drama involved. If we are to complain, it is typically on Facebook, or with an offending photo on Instagram, simply because Entertainment Tonight isn't knocking down our doors for interviews like they do for Winfrey. Fortunately, brands today (thanks to technology) can still listen to customers on a local level and engage with them as needed.
We live in a society where brand image is fragile, to a certain extent, thanks to social media. It's more like perceived fragility, though. Each day another brand soils itself online, but a week later consumers have largely forgotten, provided that the brand in question responded to the issue with some humility. That simply hasn't happened yet in this case.
Short of a full apology, acknowledgement of the slight and immediate changes to its culture, Trois Pommes' messaging regarding this crisis will continue to fall on deaf ears. And so long as it ignores the voices commenting about this situation on popular review sites, and in social media circles, the Trois Pommes brand will continue to be mired in controversy.