Human + Fallible = Love; Corporate + Sterile = Refund

A lovely new company/customer etiquette has emerged, and small startups are especially suited for exploiting it. I hope you’re not ignoring it.

Just yesterday someone explained to me what they expect from their website hosting company:

I want someone else making sure the server doesn’t go down. Or, if it does go down, I want someone to apologize to me.

Ten years ago, that bold text would have read: “Or, if it does go down, I want someone to scream at.” Or: “I want someone to give me a refund.”  The new attitude is not “Those assholes better not ever screw up,” but rather “I expect them to try hard, to care, and to treat me well when they inevitably screw up.”

This doesn’t mean you get a free pass to screw your customers, then earn forgiveness from a heartfelt “open letter from the CEO.” Rather, it means:

  • You’re doing your honest, level best to do right by your customers, evidenced continuously through all your communication — blog, tech support, website — not just after a crisis.
  • You’re learning from your mistakes, evidenced by problems tending towards the esoteric, and by explaining in your apology what steps you’ve taken to avoid this and similar classes of error.
  • You’re doing everything in your power to be the best, evidenced by a culture of awesome employees and inventing new ways to make your customers successful, so mistakes are ordinary human error, not negligence or indifference.

It’s not even the apology itself; no one’s convinced when a large company issues an insincere, legally-vetted “official apology” that you know doesn’t fix anything. What that quote above really means is: “I want to work with other people who behave like real people, who are obviously trying their best, and who respond to problems as earnestly and quickly as can be expected.”

In short: People readily forgive honest human error, but become adversarial and distrustful with the typical, sterile customer/provider relationship.

This is why every blog-about-blogging sternly instructs you to “be human.” Umm, what? Compared to what, being feline?

(Isn’t it weird that we have to be told how to “be human?” WTF?)

“No no,” they say, “it means let your humanity show — be authentic.” Oh brother, ok, how do I do that?

The typical advice for “being authentic” is to “just be yourself,” but I don’t know what that means. Thales said the most difficult thing is to “Know Thyself,” so it must be really hard to do that over Twitter and AdWords. (By the way, Thales also said the easiest thing is “To Give Advice.” I’ll let you bask in the irony for a minute…)

So I suppose one route to “finding your voice” is to take stock of your total life experience together with your ten-year goals, then synthesize a compelling, internally-consistent philosophy, apply that to all your actions and communications, and summarize it in four punchy words on your home page.

Yeah right, who can do that? Not me, I can’t even decide what to have for lunch.

So instead, here’s a few more practical ways to discover what’s essential to your personality and point of view:

  • Criticize others.
    If you especially enjoy someone’s slogan, why? Is it because it’s funny, clever, specific, unwavering, simple, conservative, confident, or ballsy? Conversely if you loathe someone’s “About Us” page, why? Is it because it’s too personal, not personal enough, too detailed, not detailed enough, silly, formal, useless, childish, lengthy, or arrogant? When you see something that strikes a nerve, complete the sentence: “I absolutely [love|hate] that because ….”
  • Decide what you are not.
    For example, you might say “I hate companies who use formal language; I’m never going to allow formality to dictate how I communicate.” Or the opposite: “I hate companies who think it’s funny and clever to use informal language; I’m going to instill confidence by showing that we behave like grown-ups.” It’s easy to identify corporate stuff that pisses you off; use that to decide both what not to do and what to do instead.
  • Copy something you love.
    Sounds weird I know — how can copying lead to a unique, personal style? But if you think about why you love something — a company, an attitude, a writing style, a philosophy — it’s because you identify with it so completely. It is you! Of course over time you’ll morph that copy into something unique, but there’s nothing wrong with getting a head start by imitating something you wish you had thought of yourself. Careful though — I’m not advocating plagiarism! The goal is mimicry, not theft, influence, not carbon-copy. Your mindset should be: The thing I’m copying is a rough draft that needs extensive editing but whose heart is in the right place.

Even assuming you successful identify what “being human” means to you, it’s still surprisingly difficult to implement because every strong decision you make will necessarily alienate many people even while it’s thrilling others.

If you adopt an informal style, some people will find it refreshing while others find you untrustworthy. If you’re proactive in announcing bugs, some people will reciprocate by gracefully putting up with the problems, while others will be shocked — shocked! — and will Twitter that you sell shoddy software. If you admit the entire company consists of two people, some folks will smile knowing they’ll get primo customer service while others will flee because of the low probability you’ll still be around next year. If you curse on your blog, many people will wince and click “Back” but others will laugh and click “Subscribe.”

And yet, strong, specific, and honest you must be. Yes it means turning off some people, but the remainder will love you all the more (and make sure their Facebook “friends” know it).

What’s the alternative — having no persona at all? Then why would anyone get excited about you? Why would they put up with your faults? Why would they tell their friends about you?

Is your goal is to become a soulless corporation? No? Well then, do whatever it takes to be soulful.

Continued in the comments… How do you find your voice? How do you decide which people to alienate? Do you disagree with the premise? Leave a comment and join the discussion.

20 responses to “Human + Fallible = Love; Corporate + Sterile = Refund”

  1. Apologies are great, but I love it when I see a company that has their processes down to prevent disasters from happening and a plan for when they do. I love companies that seem prepared so that everything is seamless.

    BMW could have apologized for the engine problems in the 2001 BMW M3, or they could give their customers a 100,000 mile warranty on them. I worked there for two years and it struck me as a company that always dealt with people in a fair manner.

    I guess my question is this: would you rather have an authentic person apologize and do nothing or a soulless corporation turn around and fix your problem immediately?

    • What a strange and arbitrary reduction of choices!

      I’ll take ‘C’: an authentic person who apologizes and fixes my problem immediately.

      Gregory Scott

  2. Yes, there has been a shift from “refund” or “screams” to “apologies”. But it happened mostly because there is an increasing proportion of non-essential, non-critical goods and services in what people and corporations buy, and the relative value of these goods is decreasing.

    It’s silly to scream or ask for refunds if a $10/month online service (that you can live without for an hour) breaks down. It’s ridiculous to only expect an apology if a $1000/month piece of software that you use all day breaks down.

    Maybe people are getting so used to large corporations ignoring their pleas for refunds or screams for bloody vengeance, that they don’t bother asking for anything more than an apology when their product breaks down…
    .-= Victor Nicollet’s latest blog post: NicolletNet Facebook Page =-.

  3. Totally nail on the head sort of article.

    Only today a major notebook manufacturer responded to my support desk email with a request to call their support line which recorded message told me to visit the website! Of course it came from an email of noreply@whateverbigcompany with plenty of useless stock photography happysmiley crap.

    All too often you get the feeling from dealing with large companies that aftercare is an afterthought or the reps are going through the motions.

    And yet from managing the other side of it, I know of the political difficulty it can be to institutionalize the humanity aspects of customer care online, and the blogging tone of voice. A blog does not/should not equal blandness.Risk taking and opinion positioning can be indeed viewed positively. If you´re are managing a brand, even a small one in your industry in the blogoshphere, you can´t conceal behind bland platitudes if you want to foster a true brigade of enthusiasts. I´m much more of the stick your neck out school of thought.

  4. Fantastic – this is just as true for an individual as it is for a business. In this age where even normal human interaction is dominated by technology – giving it an almost mechanical feel- its especially important to take these things into account.
    Especially liked this quote: every strong decision you make will necessarily alienate many people even while it’s thrilling others.

  5. I want someone else making sure the server doesn’t go down. Or, if it does go down, I want someone to apologize to me.

    There’s a step before the apology which is even more important – when something goes wrong – and it always will sooner or later – tell me what’s going on rather than hiding in your bunker. We have a great web host – the first I know that something has gone wrong is usually their email explaining the issue and explaining what they’ve done to fix it. Failures are rare – but when they happen keeping people informed is essential!

  6. Thanks for another great post, Jason. I wholeheartedly agree that reaching out to customers with an authentic, human persona goes a really long way when it comes to gaining their trust.

    Last week, in the course of answering a customer support inquiry, we discovered a bug in our software that had, in a perfect storm of bizarre circumstances, damaged some of that customers’ data. We immediately and pro-actively called the customer, explained to her what had happened, offered a sincere apology, and told her how the situation had been remedied.

    We fully expected and were prepared for her to be angry, and I gave my sales and support staff full license to offer to extend her service for free as a consolation. Instead, she was actually extremely pleasant and appreciative of the communication. I think you hit the nail on the head when it comes to apologies – sincerity and a transparent desire to do better are key. When you offer honest communication to your customers on a regular basis, it’s a lot easier to forgive the occasional shortcomings.

  7. Wow, you put into words *exactly* how I react to companies I deal with.

    I want them to show me they are trying, and that they care about my issues. Of course I don’t want them to respond just to placate me, but people are not perfect and companies come from people. If too many people expect companies to be perfect without giving them a change to fix new problems it causes them to be too conservative in trying to improve something that badly needs improving but is otherwise not broken.

    Sure, they can screw up from time to time, but how do they react when they do? For example, that’s why I really dislike 37 Signals: and why Apple can be such a PITA. Alternately when they do screw up but then fix it, I feel everyone I know. Dell in recent years has bent-over backwards for me. Twitter’s Alex Payne made me fall in love with Twitter as a company because I told him something I needed in the API and I had it the next day!!! They didn’t screw up, but I assumed they’d respond like most other companies and simply ignore my request. (admittedly, that was a while ago.)

    So yes, I love this article. Kudos!

    P.S. Some people commenting here seem not to buy into your thesis. I’m really curious, it would be interesting to see from among who is commenting where their political learnings are. Would they be a self-described conservative or a self-described liberal? FWIW, I lean away from the right.
    .-= Mike Schinkel’s latest blog post: Beware AppleCare- =-.

  8. Apologies are great but what’s even better is what they do about it. That is where a small company can rapidly react and crush a big company in terms of taking care of customers.

    There is something to “you can’t please everyone” but I don’t think you need to really do that. What you need to do is “please the people who trusted you in the first place”. Wonderful read as usual.

    .-= Jarie Bolander’s latest blog post: Diamonds in the Rough- 5 Proven Motivational Strategies =-.

  9. “having no persona at all” – I believe many people and companies fall into this category, sometimes I do too. A lot of us are always trying to be likable to everyone and by doing so we loose our identity, our persona, we don’t want turn away anyone and so we use very formal language, we have no voice in our blogs and we pretend we are always smiling – that is a big mistake!

    Instead of categorizing yourself as “authentic”, “human”, “unique”, “with a voice”, etc… don’t worry about these labels, just say what you think and do what you like, some people will walk away from you but the ones that stay close are the ones who know who you are and they are interested in you, those are the people you want by your side ;)

  10. I always think back to an old skit on the Daily Show where Aasif Mandvi was reporting on a worldwide shortage in douchery and how each person should strive to conserve. He had a great line where he said (paraphrasing): “Before you open your mouth and speak ask yourself, Do I REALLY have to be SUCH a douchebag?” I think following that advice gets you a long way towards being ‘human’ in your communications :)


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