For Harvey Norman’s online maestro Gary Wheelhouse, today isn’t just Monday, it’s Comp Day. That means a new prize is up for grabs for followers of Harvey Norman’s Twitter account (@HarveyNormanAU) – it could be something small and fun, such as an iPod dock, or cool and expensive, like a Samsung Galaxy Tab. Whatever the prize, the goal is the same: the engage and interact with Harvey Norman consumers through social media.

A Harvey Norman franchisee for 20 years, Wheelhouse is using his intimate knowledge of the Harvey Norman business to promote the Harvey Norman brand, raise awareness of products, thank consumers with kind words and resolve tension with online critics. A father of three teenagers, Wheelhouse said his kids now think he has surpassed them in social media expertise.

“I was talking to my oldest daughter about this, and she believes now that I am in front, but certainly in the early stages, specifically around Facebook, I would say to her, ‘Should I do this?’ and ‘What happens here?’,” Wheelhouse said.

Unlike the companies that hire self-styled ‘social media experts’ to formulate strategies, Harvey Norman has taken the opposite approach, promoting a Harvey Norman expert into the role. Wheelhouse reports directly to CEO Katie Page, whilst concurrently running his own Computers franchise at Belrose. He said this strategy makes much more sense.

“I don’t listen to social media experts because I don’t think you can be an expert in an area that is changing every day.”

In addition to handling the “phenomenal” response Harvey Norman has had to its Twitter competitions, Wheelhouse’s team must also engage less enthralled Tweeters. Part of his remit is to contact complaining or whinging keyboard warriors and then attempt to resolve their grievances. This incursion into word-of-mouth territory is a new frontier for all brands, with bad experiences previously just shared amongst friends and family. Wheelhouse sees this facet of the job as essential.

“The only conversations I am afraid of are the ones we can’t be involved in. When we talk to people – on Twitter and on Facebook – you get two types of interaction: you get customers who are talking about you and you get customers who are talking to you…and we will respond to all of those.

“I don’t think that there’s anything to lose by talking to a customer, either by thanking them because they’ve mentioned on Twitter that they’ve just gone into a store and got something and they love it, or…they have an issue with a product that can be very easily resolved, that just requires somebody to step into that conversation and say, ‘Hey, listen, I can get you some help on that’.”

When Harvey Norman chairman Gerry Harvey caused a stir by calling for the GST to be applied on overseas purchases, Harvey Norman received a lot of negative feedback, especially through Twitter, where the store is often referred to derisively as ‘Hardly Normal’. Wheelhouse said that although he loved the Harvey Norman business – ranking it below only his family – he does not take this criticism personally.

“I don’t have any sensitivity towards the term ‘Hardly Normal’,” Wheelhouse said. “To me it’s no different to people calling us ‘Harveys’. People want to refer to us that way, I have no sensitivity to that whatsoever.”

Harvey Norman franchisees have a face, but only this man has a voice