We know some people from your company. They’re pretty cool online. Do you have any more like that you’re hiding? Can they come out and play?
The internet should make businesses and corporations more open, more communicative and transparent. But in the 10 years of the Cluetrain Manifesto we haven’t seen a great transformation. Sure, we have business blogs opening the lid, Twitter gives us insight into what businesses are doing, but the vast majority of this communication is broadcast. Marketing messages, positive spin and highly-controlled outward bound marketing are the disappointing norm. There are some wonderful examples of where the conversation is real. But play? We’re no closer to play than ten years ago.
Companies are paranoid about what is said about them and what they say. eBay, for instance, might Twitter its quarterly results but only after it has posted a disclaimer from the legal team. Customer support reps and agents from all types of companies are still required to stick rigidly to a script. They don’t have much latitude of discretion. Off-the-cuff participation online is still rare.
The culture within a company is only one aspect of the challenge that makes proper, open communication between employees and customers possible online. Trust, cleverness and a willingness to empower are vital. Good people, cool people, who can flourish with that trust are essential. But the company culture isn’t the only factor.
The old media represents a barrier. In the testosterone-fuelled world of the old media even a lack of levity (play?) can be perceived as a lack of respect to customers. “I don’t know” is a sign of ignorance and failure. An honest, well-meant comment could be picked up and fright the market. Corporations are control freaks. Of course they’re petrified.
But we the customers are the major obstacle: we are unforgiving and combative because we’re still being let down. I’ve represented several companies online, specifically on discussion forums. My words were so tightly scrutinised by customers that they had to be carefully phrased. Memories were long: “you said three years ago… blah, blah, blah.” Questions asked with the intention of entrapment commonplace. Negativity was the norm: “you would say that, wouldn’t you?” The companies’ intentions were good, but the customers were cynical. Whilst the relationship is still broken, even pots of first-class online conversation won’t mend it. Why is this lying bastard lying to me?
Play is only possible when your guard is down. People play when they’re relaxed. There are as many cool people within companies and the tools for unleashing them have never been better or more powerful. But businesses need to traverse the trust gap before naked conversations with employees are possible and engaging. And we customers can contribute too by being a little more charitable. We need to realise that the rep isn’t the CEO, that the customer-facing agent is a human and is most likely trying their best and keen to help. When we customers are doing our bit, we can demand better from businesses. Don’t forget: they’re petrified.