I love to be helpful. But we don’t take Panera orders here

Panera just ordered me to delete the names, numbers and email addresses of its executives from this site. It’s not the only company that wants me to erase contact information.

But should I?

Takedown requests are becoming an almost regular event on this site. That’s because we’ve devoted significant resources to improve our search engine optimization (SEO). The information was always there, but Google, Bing and Yahoo didn’t always see it. Now they do.

Panera’s case is interesting because it arrived at roughly the same time as another takedown request. The approach each company took are significantly different and noteworthy. Scroll down for the obligatory poll, which my research team will certainly take into consideration when they make their final decision.

Panera orders:

Let’s start with Panera. Here’s the initial request:

I head up Panera’s Consumer Support and we have recently received many complaints from guests attempting to get support and receiving no response.

We have traced this back your site and have found many discrepancies across the contact options you have provided. While we appreciate the accessibility for our guests to find contact options, outdated information creates a terrible experience for our guests.

Specifically, I’ve listed below the contact options listed on your site with status and action needed for each. While I have found forms on your site for updating information, they don’t have a way to specify that I represent the company so they don’t cover my needs.

Please confirm receipt of this request and a Service Level Agreement on when the changes will be made. If the updates aren’t made in a timely manner I will need to go through cease & desist or update process which I would prefer not to do.

Thank you in advance for your assistance with this.

In case you missed the threat, I bolded it. This is coming from someone who lists her title as “director|consumer & business suppor [sic] services.” So right out of the gate, she’s promising to lawyer up if I don’t comply.

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As a side note, many have tried to force us to take down information from our site. And they would have all succeeded if it weren’t for a little something called the First Amendment. That’s right, my friends, we have the right to publish this information. It’s protected by the Constitution.

So what’s wrong with our information?

Here’s where it gets interesting. The Panera manager also attached an annotated version of our Panera page. Next to many of the entries, in red, she wrote “– inaccurate/remove” or “Remove all Contact Information” without bothering to say if they were, or weren’t, correct.

My research team, which takes accuracy seriously, started digging. We found that most of the information on the page was actually correct. We fixed a few minor issues.

So what’s the problem? I followed up with a polite email, asking if she wouldn’t mind clarifying the inaccuracies. For example, the Panera director noted that the fax number was incorrect. Yet the company listed the same number on its website. Same thing for the executives.

To which she replied,

To be clear, we want our customers to easily find contact information on our company and the content of your site does offer excellent advice to consumers while also providing contact options. I’ve read through it.

With all that said, we are seeing an increase in “lost” customers specifically as a result of some of the information on your site (some inaccurate and some ineffective).

Given what I believe the mission of your site to be, I am confident you would not want to ensure it is useful to Panera consumers and not the cause of more friction.

The mission of this site

The mission of this site is to empower people to solve their consumer problems and help those who can’t.

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Empowering people to solve their own consumer problems means giving them all the information they need, including the names, numbers and email addresses of executives.

Typically, when we receive requests like this, it doesn’t mean customers are getting “lost.” When customers get lost, I hear about it. Instead, it means one of the executives we list online has made an angry phone call to the director after being on the receiving end of one too many customer service calls. It’s an understandable reaction, right down to the threats of legal action. But I’m not swayed by that argument.

In the end, we removed the inaccurate information and made a notation on the Panera page, reminding readers to use the executive contacts only when all other avenues of communication have failed to yield results. We also tell them to start with the primary contact, not the CEO. If you’d like to weigh in on that decision, scroll down to vote in the poll.

A different approach

On the same day we received Panera’s takedown demand, my research team got a similar request from the parent company of Saks Fifth Avenue. It was polite and to the point, noting the nonworking addresses and incorrect contacts, but also indicating the correct corporate contacts.

“I want to see our customers assisted in a very timely manner,” the executive added. “The best possible option for customers is to connect with the phone and email contacts you’ve already provided. Should the customer need to escalate their concern further, I’m happy to provide the following.”

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Then he listed an insider email address that went straight to two high-level customer managers.

And did I mention how polite he was? Yes, I think I may have.

We made most of the fixes. My researchers were only too happy to assist quickly.

Now what?

If nothing else, these two cases illustrate that your approach makes an enormous difference. That’s true not just for consumers approaching companies, but also when the roles are reversed, and a company wants a consumer advocate to help.

Threats never work. My First Amendment lawyer eats cease-and-desist demands for breakfast.

I’d love to get your thoughts on this matter. Should I have deleted the Panera contacts, as ordered, or made the corrections? Was I too nice to the polite Canadian parent company for Saks, which made an almost identical request but took a more measured approach?

Update: After I filed this story, but before it published, we received a note from our Panera contact saying the changes were enough. Curiously, her title had changed since she first emailed us. Gee, I hope we didn’t have anything to do with that.

Should I take those Panera orders and remove the contacts?

View Results

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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