I was recently having a conversation with Zaigham Zulqernain at, ironically (you’ll see the irony in a moment), a coffee shop. It was that conversation, a post from Shilpa Nicodemus and a video by Scott Stratten that inspired this post. (Please take the time to read Shilpa’s post and watch Scott’s video for some great insights.)

Shilpa and Scott both reference a situation that occurred between Dark Horse Cafe and April Dunford. Shilpa’s post provides some of that exchange from Twitter and illustrates how Dark Horse could have been more tactful in dealing with the situation.

Social media now provides customers with a megaphone, so businesses need to be mindful of their interactions. While Darkhorse’s words may have been wrong, their message wasn’t necessarily incorrect. It reminded me of the title of a book by Charles Grodin: It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here. While Grodin was making a movie on location, the inconvenienced owner of the house being used for the film said, “It would be so nice if you weren’t here.” Darkhorse’s crime was not their desire to be a coffee shop rather than a workspace, but the clumsy manner by which they tried to express it.

Companies develop business plans and strategies with specific customer segments in mind. If companies lose sight of their target customers then they put their business at risk, trying to be all things to all people. The more clear a company is about their customer segment the better they can service them.

Companies can convey their customer segment in subtle ways like the décor in the case of a store or a restaurant or the content on a website. More obvious methods like pricing and the manner in which a product or service is delivered can also suggest the customers being targeted. Darkhorse was subtle with their lack of electrical outlets but obvious through their tweets — and that was their mistake. It wasn’t the message; it was the delivery.

In the case of banking, customers typically receive a different level of service from an ATM than from a mortgage specialist and there is usually a correlation between low-touch customer service with high volumes of low-cost transactions and high-touch customer service with higher value transactions. This applies in many other examples beyond banking.

While people have the right to express their feelings and opinions as April Dunford did, and social media enable them to do so more broadly, companies also have the right to pursue their target customer with a well-defined product or service. The key is to articulate their value proposition and customer segmentation in a tactful and respectful manner rather than how Dark Horse did. This will increase the odds that, as Shilpa suggests, issues will remain whispers rather than rants broadcast over the web.

If people raise issues with a company, the company needs to acknowledge them — but they are free to choose how to respond. They can make a judgment call about what action to take and what it will mean to their business. Should they bend policy to appease the customer, or tactfully tell the customer that they have been heard but that what the customer is asking for is not something they can fulfill due to cost, policy, lack of resources, or they are simply not equipped to service people in the manner that the customer is requesting?

Scott is right that companies whose customer service sucks will only suck more with social media. I am not trying to defend companies that deliver poor service. I am trying to differentiate between providing poor service to the right customer and not providing service to the wrong customer. The latter is about staying focused on your strategy.

Situations will arise requiring companies to pause and consider their choices. As Shilpa suggest, companies that deal tactfully with those situations can remain focused on their target customers and still leave those customers who initially felt slighted feeling acknowledged and respected. It’s even possible that those same people could become spokespeople for the company. How many times have you heard someone say, “I don’t shop there, but if you are looking for X then you will probably find it there”? This doesn’t happen all the time, but companies can still benefit by operating on the Golden Rule of treating others as they themselves would like to be treated.

The world of customer service isn’t perfect. Many companies are terrible at it while others continue to strive to improve. Social media and the associated transparency help keep companies honest and compel them to be responsible for their actions. Things get a little dangerous when the lines blur between service types and customer profiles. Companies should be allowed to “stick to their knitting,” provided they do so in a professional and courteous manner. If they don’t, then it will not be surprising to see them called out about it through social media channels. In the meantime, we’ll just have to wait and see how this shakes out.