In an era in which everyone is connected with everything, word of mouth travels faster and further than ever before. That hair which was discovered in your soup is no longer a concern for you and your waiter: now the whole internet has to know about it, and will judge the restaurant accordingly. From anonymous Trip Advisor reviews to social media spats, companies of all sizes are only too aware of the dangers of negative publicity.
It doesn’t matter how many glowing reviews you’ve received from satisfied customers: all it takes is one disgruntled punter with a grievance to air and your reputation is irreparably harmed. Although businesses will lament bad publicity, no one is denying the right of the wronged: if you’d been sold a shoddy product or served a substandard meal, wouldn’t you feel compelled to kick up a fuss?
They say the customer is never wrong. But what about customers who are hellbent on destroying a business due to a perceived injustice they have suffered? What about customers who peddle lies to the press in the hope of settling a score?
How should the slighted business respond: should it just suck up the criticism and move on, or should it hit back with all guns blazing? This is the dilemma that Secret Surgery faces today.
When biting your tongue just won’t do
In October 2012, we were celebrating leading the Medical Tourism Industry. This was fuelled by a slew of over 100 detailed favourable customer reviews, nine months later and despite having accrued many more positive reviews, we find ourselves fighting to defend our reputation. Today, a former Secret Surgery patient has chosen to go public with her experience of treatment abroad. Her account, which appears in the Mail on Sunday, is not the sort you would expect us to voluntarily highlight. Taken at face value, it would appear to present a fairly unflattering portrayal of Secret Surgery. It is the sort of account, in fact, which has the potential to undo years of hard work spent establishing a reputation as a trusted provider of cosmetic surgery holidays.
Bad publicity is hard to take. Typically it involves taking the criticism with good grace, accepting you were in the wrong and taking measures to ensure the customer’s experience is never replicated again. But what about bad publicity that is also false publicity? How do you apologise for wrongdoing that didn’t occur? How do you brush off allegations that are simply untrue?
Publicly apologise and you’ll forever be presumed guilty. Refute the mendacious allegations however and you risk being portrayed as stubborn and dogmatic – attributes that are hardly conducive to a firm whose reputation is dependant upon being perceived as caring and compassionate.
As you can imagine, we’re not in the habit of attacking our customers. Not even when it appears that the customer in question is more interested in conducting a vendetta than settling a dispute.
Whether you are reading these words as a Secret Surgery customer, as a curious onlooker or as someone who is contemplating surgery abroad, we believe you deserve the truth. We also believe, however, that you may have better things to do with your time than read a blow-for-blow account of why we’re ‘right’ and the customer is ‘wrong’. Should there be a genuine interest in hearing our side of the story, we will gladly publish detailed documentation in a future blog post, addressing each of the individual’s complaints in turn.
As it stands however, we are reticent to do so, not least because we are not a combative company: lashing out is not in our nature. We are also reticent to set off on the warpath out of genuine concern for the complainant’s physical and mental welfare.
To cut a long story short
The woman in question, who shall be referred to as Ms J, was booked in for surgery in our Polish Award winning Private Hospital in December of last year. Having previously used our company for 2 separate surgical procedures, which was completed successfully, Ms J was familiar with the facilities and knew what to expect. However, following a consultation in December, the hospital decided to cancel the procedure, based on a pre-operative assessment of the woman’s health. Despite the surgical procedure (which she never paid for) having been aborted, Ms J elected not to return home, instead staying on in Poland to enjoy a 10-day holiday. On 18th December, she cheerily commented in an email to us
“I would like to mention the treatment I had at EMC – where else would you get a heart scan and not be charged for it?!!! You really did well finding them :o))))”.
Later, however, Miss J had a change of heart and decided to contact Secret Surgery’s lawyers to issue a formal complaint for losses associated with her cancelled trip. Even at this stage, however, she did not fault the service she had received, noting
“I would like to state that I have no complaint, and have not made a complaint about the surgery carried out by Dr Wojciech Waclawowicz at the EMC Hospital in Wroclaw Poland. You wrote of my being “unhappy with the procedure at the hospital”. Quite the contrary, the treatment I had there was first class.”
Fast forward to the present day, and the story laid out in the Mail on Sunday is quite different. In the seven months since undergoing ‘first class’ treatment, Ms J’s account has changed quite dramatically.
What, you may be entitled to wonder, could have caused a patient to go from disputing the price of a medical bill to attempting to cripple a business by attacking it from all angles – including attacks on its after-care programme and questioning the competence of its surgeons and nurses?
There is a lot of evidence we could produce to address this question. Much of this evidence, however, would paint the complainant – Ms J – in an extremely unflattering light and would certainly call into question her emotional stability. That is not something we are willing to do if at all possible. Criticising customers is not in our nature – even one whose experience with Secret Surgery may have ended acrimoniously.
Since deciding, in December 2012, that she was unhappy with the service she had received, Ms J went on to send us hundreds of emails and countless social media comments, many of them despatched within seconds of one another they targeted staff, friends, family and an estimated 70% of our precious clients too. Keeping up with her scattershot correspondence became a full-time job in its own right. In the end, we offered Ms J £400 for her expenses (her initial request) which quickly escalated to £850 and then £1050 which we agreed to if she would refrain from her campaign of online harassment. Please note that Ms J’s latest request for money was £2,000 which we will not honour.
From the hundreds of emails we received, we will publish just one extract that is indicative of Ms J’s state of mind:
“If [Angela] wants to pay me today, then the trouble stops here. I have much more planned, and will not stop until she is ruined…If she doesn’t pay, then she gets what is coming to her, believe me it is about to get much much worse…. if she can confirm today that she has paid the money into my account, then I will stop all attacks on her. She will have to be quick though…If she wants me to stop, she needs to pay this afternoon, and quickly! I will give her until 3pm to transfer the money, and confirm it to me…I am happy to stop if she pays me. I need confirmation today. I would need to ring the bank to confirm it has been paid.”
Some people may read that as the words of a wronged patient. Others may call it for what it is: blackmail.
It’s sad that what should have been a routine operation – no different from hundreds of others successfully performed at the same facility – should have come to this. Perhaps, over the course of three years, it was inevitable that one customer would have cause to express dissatisfaction. As the adage goes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Nevertheless, it hurts to have had our reputation trashed in the press by an individual who has waged a relentless vendetta against Secret Surgery.
No one is perfect. Everybody gets things wrong occasionally. When we err, we have no qualms about holding our hands up and admitting it. We’re certainly not too proud to confess when we’re in the wrong. Looking back at Ms J’s cancelled hospital visit and the subsequent fallout with hindsight, however, there is little we could or would have done differently.
All we can do is tell our side of the story, which is what we’ve done. We’ve endeavoured not to be vengeful, dismissive or scathing of Miss J and her concerns. We would politely suggest that her actions over the past nine months have vindicated the hospital’s original decision not to go through with the scheduled operation. Despite all of the foregoing, however, we bear the individual no ill will.
On a secondary point; It amazes me how many Industry professionals are quick to judge without being fully furnished with the facts. A Doctor would never diagnose a patients illness without having the appropriate Information, test and checks to hand and this scenario is no different. For the record EMC Instytut Medyczny is a multi-award winning and the largest private hospital chain in Poland and I’d go as far to say they’d put their money where their mouth is and openly welcome any Industry professionals to investigate and make an educated critique… You may even learn a thing or too!
Publicity is like poison: it doesn’t hurt unless you swallow it. If you would like to hear Ms J’s side of the story, you’ll find her account in today’s Mail on Sunday. In spite of the many falsehoods and distortions contained within the story, we have no reason to shy away from its existence.
In times of conflict, the manner in which you respond to bad publicity defines you as a company. This is our truth. Thank you for reading.
MD & Founder – Secret Surgery Ltd