The roles of public relations, customer service and social media are increasingly merging.
So the case of Vitaly Borker is a fascinating one.
He is the online retailer who devotes up to 20 hours a day clashing with people he perceives as problem customers – those who complain, refuse to pay or quibble over the quality of goods and services.
His alleged repertoire against certain customers of his online eyeglasses and sunglasses business includes:
- Abusive language
- Veiled threats of violence
- Sexual threats
- Stalking behaviour (including sending victims photos of their homes)
- Posing as customers to cancel transactions with financial institutions
Even his name – Vitaly Borker – carries the vague whiff of Russian mafia menace. He has also adopted two alter egos: Stanley Bolds and Tony Russo, character names that could’ve walked straight off the pages of a Sopranos script.
Why exactly Borker go to such enormous efforts to provoke and tyrannise people who spend money with his firm?
Quite simply because it is good for his Google rankings.
Whether fed-up, frightened or plain furious, those who feel slighted, cheated or ripped off follow a now well-worn path online, to complain loudly about their experiences. That in turn means his business, DecorMyEyes ranks well in search engines.
Read the full expose of his antics at the New York Times. It is by degrees hilarious, jaw-dropping and deflating.
Borker’s case is disturbing. Like any such tale, it is easy to think of it as black and white. Just like the aforementioned Sopranos, the moral complexities it throws up are what really make us cringe. Here are a few other uncomfortable thoughts which so far have received little discussion:
Vitaly Borker has found his Purple Cow
Devotees of Seth Godin lap up his assertions that, in a crowded world, only brands which are startlingly, stand-out unique can enjoy mega success.
He calls it “purple cow” effect on the basis that, while driving through the countryside the ordinary cows, no matter how well-fed and well-bred are effectively invisible.
A purple cow, on the other hand, would stop us in our tracks.
In his book, Purple Cow, Godin asserts that businesses must be remarkable to succeed. Simply being good, honest or hard-working is no longer enough.
He even acknowledges that some might effectively use notoriety to achieve purple-dom, (though in fairness Godin advocates being excellent rather, than using borderline criminal activity).
Borker is, without question, remarkable.
Vitaly Borker has found a niche which ignites his passion
A perceived mainstay of new media and new marketing is that success will come to those who are passionate.
The poster boy for such passionomics is Gary Vaynerchuk, who transformed a modestly successful family wine business into a multi-million dollar empire, by creating his own online TV show.
He also created a juggernaut of a personal brand – all built round his passions (for wine, for business and for the New York Jets).
Indeed, his 2009 book Crush It! Is subtitled, “Why now is the time to cash in on your passions”. The book warns that long hours are part of the deal.
Borker spends up to 20 hours a day pursuing his passion. He told the NYT he expects the punishing regime to shorten his life but added: “I love this. I like the craziness. This works for me.”
Borker is, without question, passionate about his work.
Vitaly Borker exposes the service shortcomings of much bigger businesses
Borker’s extremes are those of one man. He insists it is a form of theatre (he references shock jock Howard Stern, I think more of a menacing version of Basil Fawlty).
His predatory form of bullying and harassment is odious, yet is reserved only for a carefully managed number of complaining customers. Presumably he also has thousands of perfectly happy clients?
Reading the original article I was struck by the fact that a Borker-esque customer experience is something few of us will ever experience.
Yet virtually all of us will be subjected to the soul-leeching indifference which his victims endured from other, bigger companies.
Like Clarabelle Rodriguez being ignored by Citibank; or the slog of slighted traders trying to persuade eBay to remove wrongful and damaging slurs.
Hosting company Hostek and card giant MasterCard also seemed reluctant to involve themselves in helping slighted customers – until the New York Times stepped in.
Borker’s extremes help highlight the poor customer service we treat as daily norms.
Vitaly Borker speaks some sense – the customer is not always right
Let me be clear here: to agree with some elements of Borker’s claims does not mean I condone his behaviour.
Yet what small or medium enterprise won’t recognise the kernel of truth in his assertion: “I hate that phrase — the customer is always right. Why is the merchant always wrong? Can the customer ever be wrong? Is that not possible?”
Businesses which do their utmost to address – and resolve – customer complaints quickly will reap the rewards.
Customers have a greater voice and more power than ever before. Most will treat that with the respect it deserves.
Sadly some will abuse it. The serial complaints, threats of legal action, deliberately nasty online reviews are just as effective a cudgel for customers as they are for DecorMyEyes as a business.
Borker forces us to confront the fact that online trolls and flamers are customers too.
Vitaly Borker is a compelling case study for the value of journalism
Google has now acted. It has adapted its algorithm to prevent other dodgy businesses from using a mass of negative reviews to enjoy a positive boost to search rankings.
This is a PR move designed to counter the fact that somehow the search engine carried the weight of blame for why Borker was able to flourish.
He has been operating in this way for several years and been reported to virtually every organisation which might have acted against him.
His name and his shoddy practices remained anonymous outwith a small group of directly affected people.
The police, credit card companies, online retail giants and even websites such as GetSatisfaction.com (which allow wronged customers to amplify their voices) failed to impact on Vitaly Borker.
So, what changed?
The intervention of a genuine, investigative journalist. An old-fashioned print newspaper journalist at that.
Borker reminds us what professional journalism is capable of.
Vitaly Borker used the hallmarks of new media success stories – being both passionate and remarkable – to ruthlessly exploit an online opportunity.
In doing so he rang rings round the web giants like eBay and Google while confounding the assertions of social media champions that the empowered, online voice of the customer forces businesses to improve.
Nothing, it seemed, could bring Vitaly Borker low.
The irony isn’t lost on me that the very online forces which conspired to create Vitaly Borker are also the biggest threat to news journalism today.
Ultimately though, it was news journalism which has most effectively dented Borker’s nefarious activities – by ensuring a massive potential audience now knows of his modus operandi. .