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The Internet Does Not Grant You Entitlement Over People

28 November 2010 Ken Yeung One Comment

A few days ago, my good friend Liza Sperling published a post that talked about customer service and raised an interesting point on how people viewed customer service in the world of social media and the Internet. Over the past few months, I’ve seen companies and people go to Twitter and social media to rant and rave about products, issues, feedback, ideas, concepts and whatever their hearts content and while guilty of doing it myself, I think there’s a certain line that has been crossed that really defines what people’s expectations are when it comes to using social media to interact with businesses and how businesses should respond to these issues.

Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on 2 December 1804

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Social media is not a license to complain (well sorta)

As Sperling points out in her post, customer service is not self-service. Simply using the Internet at your disposal to voice your opinions just to complain is not conducive to good business. However, if you are using the tools to genuinely get some value back and exchange some useful information, then you’re doing it right. There are times when you might figure that ranting and raving online will lead to helpful advice and fixes by community managers – and you’d normally be right, BUT what probably happens on occasion is that there may be some legitimate grips that people will have and then choose to voice that concern on the Internet either through some service like Uservoice, GetSatistfaction or other customer service tools or just through their own means like a blog post (such as this one), Twitter, YouTube or any other means. However, where this crosses the line of customer service is when people decide to vent their frustration just for the sake of yelling and complaining without adding any additional value to the growing conversation.

Where does that lead us? If you’re having a problem with a company’s website or you need help fixing your computer or having a bad experience with a brand, then seeking input from others and voicing your opinion seems pretty valid. However, just to go out there and vent about something and expect to get validated and rewarded just because you think you’re a big shot is not the right way to utilize the web to help get what you want.

Trolling does not mean customer service

TrollsWe’ve probably all seen it…especially when it comes to hot-button issues and topics like politics, religion or especially right here in Silicon Valley. I suppose the most notable issues relating to trolling can be seen just by looking at the comments that exist on any of the channels that exist for tech blogs like Mashable or TechCrunch. Look at any post that their writers published and then gaze at the comments. Sure everyone will have their own opinion, but typically you’ll see people hating on the writer or on the topic because they just want to be disrespectful and voice their own views without anything that would be remotely factual or even worthy of engaging. With that being said, these are trolls and for companies to engage with these people would be good up until the point where it just does not seem productive or conducive to anyone’s time, except for the trolls.

To that end, it would behoove you to make sure that your company’s customer services’ efforts are put forth to good use and look at all the people’s comments and respond to the ones that legitimately have a beef, complaint, suggestion, feedback or compliment and engage accordingly. A word of caution, however…you can’t always be sure who will be the troll and who is a legitimate commentator who wants to talk to you. To that end, treat all people with the same respect and show the same service to all until you find that the conversation will no longer turn productive – if all they are doing is exposing complaint after complaint and doesn’t appear to be getting any satisfaction, then move on. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t please everyone…especially if they are the ones who are not pleased in the first place.

Photo Credit: ALovelyWorld.com

The First Amendment might not be absolute, technically

American FlagA couple weeks ago, Brian Solis published an interesting post called The First Amendment of Social Media: Freedom of Tweet, which I think is an exceptionally well-written piece, except he cites some things which I think should be framed differently. Solis’ First Amendment post definitely goes well with The Social Media Bill of Rights for Customers post I wrote earlier this summer, but when Solis wrote about 27-year-old accountant Paul Chambers’ tweet about the Robin Hood airport being closed, did this cross the line? Can you say whatever you want without fear of retribution and can you post anything without fear of getting in trouble? No…because while we all must be a bit sensitive to the billions of others online, there will be a slight minority that will take it the wrong way and if there’s the honest belief that there’s a credible threat on a life, property, group or country, then people need to be aware that they cannot say whatever they want.

We all, at least in the United States, have the freedom to say whatever we want. But there are limits to that freedom and what Chambers did, albeit jokingly, did have at least the authorities convinced that something was about to happen – especially in today’s societal climate. And we aren’t in front of him so what we put online in blogs, social networks, emails or IMs don’t necessarily convey the emotion and personality we have out there. Just having the opportunity to vent online does not give us full protection to say whatever we want – it’s just like you were in a crowded theater and said that you were planning on attacking someone after the movie…anyone who happened to be around there could believe that you were saying things honestly and could report you to the authorities. Whether you’re convicted or charged is another story, but the point is that the Internet is a powerful tool, almost a double-edged sword and it can be used for good and for bad. We must take great care, especially from the standpoint of a consumer and company.

Photo Credit: linder6580 / sxc.hu

We can all be civil about this, can’t we?

The Internet has thrown us into the realm of openness and brought with it an end to censorship. There’s always the political correctness approach, but frankly on the Internet, if you don’t like it, people will tell you to go elsewhere. The web is a massive jungle out there and just how can companies and customers really navigate this to come to some conclusion and agreement on how to handle differences?

Firstly, I think that companies should always be aware of what’s being said about them. No, not respond to the first thing that hits their radar in the morning and they should not be super anxious about when someone writes something negative about them. On the contrary, relax. If something negative is written about your company and/or product, then investigate and find out what their specific issue is. Acknowledgement of the problem is really helpful and will at least buy you some grace period while the author is probably relieved that someone is paying attention to their problem.

But what if the problem is more global? Do you respond to everyone’s post, tweet, YouTube video, photo, etc.? If you have the bandwidth, but probably the best bet is to find the “complainers” who are the most influential and reach out to them to work with them to settle any problems that may exist in a civil and calm manner. We can all get along.

For customers who plan on venting their frustrations or angst about buying a product that doesn’t work for them, I believe that subscribing to three beliefs that Ms. Sperling wrote in her post is very useful for helping to understand how to engage with a company:

  • You are talking to a human being, not a logo devoid of emotions or a robot with unlimited powers.
  • Cite specific concerns and propose rational solutions.
  • Allow the company’s representative to resolve your problem, and, yes, that may require providing some information and some effort on your part.

We are all human beings and the Internet is not this magical reality that devolves us into the primordial ooze to which we came from. We must not force our virtual selves to revert back to the caveman era and then subscribe to the lord and the fiefdom time when certain people held power over others and ultimately felt entitled.

The Internet has made us equal. No one is more entitled than the other.

We’re all the same.

No more. No less.

UPDATE (11/28/10): Check out this great post by Valeria Maltoni on Conversation Agent on how to complain effectively.

Ken Yeung is a interactive strategist, project manager, and tech journalist. He's currently a Strategy and Research Content Lead at Orange Silicon Valley. Previously, he was the Bay Area Reporter for The Next Web, the Editor-in-Chief of Bub.blicio.us and a correspondent for Network Solutions' small business blog. These words are his own and not of his employer.
  • http://www.secretsushi.com/ Adam Helweh

    Excellent post Ken. I was recently thinking about this very topic after reading a number of tweets and status updates from folks who had made their feelings known about a a company they were unhappy with via the social web. Many of them assumed that the company they had issue with were not only present, but also listening for such complaints.

    Should it be expected now that we can prop up a make shift soapbox on the internet for a few brief seconds just to publicly post our complaints and hope that said company will be actively hunting those comments? No, it should not… yet.

    The internet is a great place to let your voice be heard and push your social capital around if you have exhausted the appropriate routes for requesting support from a company. If you are not willing to meet the company a couple steps towards the middle then you are making it harder for them to help you and giving more ammunition to those who claim that the social web is just a bunch of complainers.