The Cluetrain Manifesto:
The End of Business as Usual
Copyright © 1999, 2001
Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger.
The voice emerges literally from the body as a
David Whyte, The Heart Aroused
Voices from PotsIím a potterís kid. When I was growing up, we always had red-brown carpet and rugs to help hide the terra-cotta dust we tracked home from Dadís shop. I have fond memories of watching Italian potters with doorway-wide shoulders spin clay into forms larger than myself, effortlessly raising planters, lamps, bowls, and jars from undistinguished lumps of mud, one after the other, parading dozens of seemingly identical forms across the studio floor. Whenever I see a large thrown shape, I remember the first time I tried to throw twenty-five pounds of clay, thinking I would start with less than the sixty or seventy pounds I saw growing like graceful mushrooms on my dadís wheels. I landed flat on my back, shoulder blades bruised, smelling twenty years of clay dust on the wood floor beneath my head, as the misshapen lump of clay took advantage of my first indecision, knocking me from the wheel and covering the studio wall in red mud. You canít learn to throw large forms without losing lots of them in the process.
Pots are made by people. Large ones especially remind me of that human authorship. Smaller things -- mugs, cups, pitchers -- touch me as well. Theyíre fitted to a potterís hands, reflecting their measure. I can gauge the size of the artisansí hands, the length of their fingers, from lips, spouts, and pulled handles. Thereís so much more life invested in a thrown piece than in anonymous cast or stamped ware. A medium such as clay, elevated and transformed by human shaping, bears witness to the life that molded it into something more than plain stuff.
When experienced potters describe their craft, they often talk about seeing the form theyíre creating in their mindís eye, applying force to make the spinning clay match its virtual, internal archetype. Thereís an incredible amount of practice, failure, and learning that has to take place before we develop the courage and surety to trust such an internal, private muse, to ignore the contrary opinions of others and do what we know will succeed.
Despite too many years spent behind keyboards and display screens building software, creating Web sites, and generally using technology more than is good for me, Iím still a potterís kid. I consider myself an artist and a craftsman, and bring a craftsmanís attitudes to my work and life. One perspective that seems to surface with some regularity is a deeply instilled obligation to do new work, create stuff people have never seen before. Itís a peculiar approach to life, picked up mostly by osmosis at some early age from my parents and relatives. In execution, itís a standard requiring constant exploration and reinvention, but also a certain studied ignorance of whatís considered right and proper. Thereís a bit of irrationality in believing that if I follow my own intuition and, at some level, donít pay attention to what other people think, Iíll create unique works that will surprise and delight. Artists have a stubborn faith in their ability to create newness from next to nothing. This faith shapes their work, enables them to establish themselves as individuals, fingerprinting their way through their medium.
Whatís this got to do with business? With organizations? Lots. Most of the creative people and knowledge workers organizations depend on, those whose sense of self-worth is centered in the pride they take in the work of their heads and hands, will have an immediate "been there, done that" reaction to this description of artistic identity. From the electronic pressroom gang, to the MIS boiler-room toilers to the hackers building an insurance-entitlement management app to increase next yearís sales -- all have some of the attitude of the craftsman. People in high tech take pride in their work. They are individuals who see the details of the things they produce in the light of the trials and triumphs they experience while creating products. In the courage of creation, they find a place to hang their individuality. Programmers and techno types appreciate elegant, spare code and the occasional well-turned architectural hack. My accountant friends get off on clever spreadsheet macros, and on being able to slant this quarterís results to shade meaning within the arcane constraints of the law. Even managers leave their telltale fingerprints on their jobs -- the well-coached team rising to unexpected heights, or the business relationship blossoming into a long-term sales annuity. Some people apply a craftsmanlike care to their work, and their voices are heard, remarked upon, and recognized as uniquely theirs.
The Web is no different. Every Web page we see has a person behind it. Sometimes their individual decisions are eroded and digested by being passed through a corporate colon of editors, gatekeepers and other factota, but there are clear signposts to individual care and concern on much of todayís Web. While all print and broadcast media have at least some indirect personal authorship, thereís a key difference on the Web. The percentage of "raw" content published, direct from a creatorís fingers to our eyes, is much higher than in traditional media. The Webís low cost of entry to publishers, both small and large, and the amount of unfiltered chat/newsgroup/e-mail text finding its way into search engines guarantees our daily browsing experience has a very strong flavor of individual authorship. Inevitably, our heightened awareness of distinct, individual voices engenders the urge to talk back, to engage, to converse. The software and mechanisms developed helter-skelter for the Net cater to these urges. Chat, free e-mail, automatic home pages -- all reinforce our feeling that not only is it easy to enter into discourse with others, but also that weíre by-god entitled to wade into the conversational stream. Heaven help you if you get in my way, or try to stifle my voice.
The good or bad news, depending on your perspective, is that itís hard to fake your end of one of these conversations. Ever been on the phone with a friend or coworker while sitting in front of a computer and trying to read or respond to e-mail when your wire addiction gets the better of you? Iím very good at multitasking, and can fool many folks some of the time, but I get caught more often than Iíll admit. (By my wife, for instance. Every time.) We can tell when someone is engaged, listening, responding honestly, and with his or her full faculties. Weíre wired to interpret subtle clues telling us whether a person is all there, if weíre the center of their attention, if weíre being heard. No matter how starved for detail our communication channel, our brains manage to get a gestalt reading on the other partyís presence.
In the same way we distinguish personal attention from inattention, we can tell the difference between a commercial pitch and words that come when someoneís life animates their message. Try snipping paragraphs of text from press releases and a few pieces of printed person-to-person e-mail. Shuffle the paper slips. Hand the pile to your office-mate, your spouse, or your next-door neighbor. Can they sort them? Of course they can, in short order. People channel from their hearts directly to their words. Thatís voice. It comes of focus, attention, caring, connection, and honesty of purpose. It is not commercially motivated, isnít talk with a vested interest. Talk is cheap. The value of our voices is beyond mere words. The human voice reaches directly into our beings and touches our spirits.
Voice is how we can tell the difference between people, committees, and bots. An e-mail written by one person bears the tool marks of their thought processes. E-mail might be employee-to-employee, customer-to-customer or employee-to-customer, but in each case itís person-to-person. Voice, or its lack, is how we tell whatís worth reading and whatís not. Much of what passes for communication from companies to customers is washed and diluted so many times by the successive editing and tuning done by each company gatekeeper that the live-person hints are lost.
Authenticity, honesty, and personal voice underlie much of whatís successful on the Web. Its egalitarian nature is engendering a renaissance in personal publishing. We of genus Homo are wired to respond to each otherís noise and commotion, to the rich, multi-modal deluge of data each of us broadcasts as we wade through life. The Web gives us an opportunity to escape from the bounds imposed by broadcast mediaís one-to-many notions of publishing. Nascent Web publishing efforts have their genesis in a burning need to say something, but their ultimate success comes from people wanting to listen, needing to hear each otherís voices, and answering in kind.
Wired ConversationsThe message here isnít new and isnít particularly complex. Our elevator pitch is a pretty short one:
If thereís any newness, itís in how the Net and the Web change the balance of the conversational equation. Technology is putting a sharper, more urgent point on the importance of conversation. Conversations are moving faster, touching more people, and bridging greater distances than weíre used to. Letís take a tour of the various conversational modalities the Net offers and how they carry our voices.
E-mail is a more immediate medium than paper. My expectation of the response time to many messages I send is today, not tomorrow or a week from now. This urgency means Iím more apt to write quickly and conversationally when I respond to a message. A lot of the spontaneity in e-mail messages comes from writers breaking through their natural caution and reserve, rushing the writing process, giving themselves permission to be blunt, honest, and sincere in response to a query. Itís not just a question of knowing how to type, but of giving myself permission to truly converse: to "out" myself in a conversational medium that is informal, honest, yet open to myriad misinterpretations if I choose words and phrases carelessly. Despite this scary thought, most people donít find person-to-person e-mail daunting. The ease and directness of e-mail is forging new connections -- new conversations -- throughout virtually every business. Type-click-deliver.
Mailing ListsMailing lists come in two basic flavors, one-way and two-way. One-way lists let me send to a large number of people at once, but recipients canít respond to the entire list the message was sent to. Thereís no opportunity for conversation, other than between you, the recipient, and me, the list owner. These lists can often have the character of a mass mailing, like a Christmas card list. If the mailing is from someone you donít know whoís trying to sell you something, convince you of something, or lure you to a particular Web site, itís called spam.
Thereís a fascinating subgenus of the one-way list called a webzine or an e-zine, as in electronic magazine. These are periodic bouts of creative journalism sent to willing subscribers, with audiences ranging from dozens to hundreds of thousands. To their devotees, they have all the interest and attraction of their well-funded offline counterparts. However, theyíre often more focused, more idiosyncratic, and less plastic. Theyíre usually created in someoneís garage or bedroom office as a labor of love given a pulpit by the incredibly low entry cost of Internet publishing. They may start out like the Utne Reader or Mother Jones magazine, but the Web relieves them of the need to raise capital, rent a press, and pay for postage. Many ízines have a strong conversational tone. They mine the incoming stream of responses to take the temperature of their constituencies, and relay tasty bits back to their audiences. The conversation this engenders often feels like publishing with a more immediate feedback loop.
Two-way lists are even more interesting from a conversational viewpoint. They let recipients respond to messages, and everyone else on the list sees their responses. But it takes time to wade through all the traffic on a busy list, sifting value from chaff, knowledge from data. As individual mailing lists grow from small, focused forums, they can easily turn into large, unwieldy free-for-alls. The commitment required to understand the content and context of a list before you post to it is part of the conversational ante this aspect of the Net requires. Just like voice conversations, these asynchronous exchanges reveal if youíre all there, focused and paying attention.
In a moderated two-way list, all mail to the list is screened by someone doing gatekeeper duty. The moderatorís role ranges from that of a friendly guide to being an editor with absolute control over every message sent to the list. Moderators often end up having a great deal of influence on the tenor and substance of list conversations.
Conversations on two-way lists look just like conversations in personal e-mail, except the odds of having several people responding independently to the same piece of mail go way up. The conversation may branch, spawn side discussions, and loop back on itself as each new person throws in her or his two cents.
NewsgroupsNewsgroups are similar to mailing lists, except messages collect on special computers on the Internet configured as "news servers." (A business can also have news servers for internal company discussions, not available on the pubic Internet.) I can point a newsreader at the server to check in when I want to, rather than seeing all the messages accumulate in my e-mail in-box, willy-nilly. Newsgroups can be either moderated or unmoderated, just like mailing lists. Newsgroups also record the conversational thread structure of their messages, unlike e-mail, so you can see who is talking to whom and why.
The information space encompassed by publicly available newsgroups, called Usenet, is enormous. Every month, millions of conversations across the globe are enabled by newsgroups. Where e-mail conversations are often between people who know one another, Usenet exchanges are often between strangers. Itís a medium that encourages discourse, and can create a kind of community among its participants.
All of these channels for conversation -- e-mail, mailing lists, newsgroups -- begin to look more alike as you use them. At some point, you start paying more attention to the messages and conversations, and less to the differences in software and tools employed by the various electronic delivery channels.
For our purposes, the biggest difference between electronic and paper mail is the ease with which a single message can be distributed to a vast audience, and then serve as a seed for conversation. I can forward your mail to my friends. To lots of my friends. To lots of people Iíve never met before, but who might be very interested in what you have to say about your companyís management, policies, or practices. I can do this on a scale far exceeding paper distribution. And I can do it before lunch.
Hereís a real-life example of how a conversation ignores the boundaries between companies and their customers. It starts with a posting to a newsgroup for Saturn car owners, rec.autos.makers.saturn, an entirely reasonable question about how much service should cost and how much control a car owner has over what gets done to his car. This newsgroup isnít owned or in any way managed by Saturn. Itís just plain folks, talking about their cars.
Someone chimes in about how much similar service costs them -- customers of two vendors comparing notes, from the comfort of their home or office:
Then, some tips for getting along with your car dealer -- reference information and advice, a testimonial in support of Saturn dealers:
So far, so good, but hereís a pointer to another car dealerís service price list. If I were a slightly shady service manager, Iíd worry, as my customers have gone beyond anecdotal comparisons to posting real prices. Now itís harder to lie with a straight face. And exposure isnít limited to the dozen or so people who posted to this discussion, but extends to thousands who might search for "saturn customer service" and find this thread:
Some comic relief from the peanut gallery...
More disgruntlement. No one from the dealership being flamed answered this post. Some readers will assume this omission validates the indictment of Saturnís service, and the company will lose business. Further, since Saturn corporate minions didnít wade into the discussion at this point, Saturn may have lost some prospective customers.
Now, a different sort of animal. This is a response from a Saturn employee, a technician, explaining how the game is played. This is an after-hours posting from a real person, and may or may not have been sanctioned by Saturn. This represents the firewall bleed-through at the heart of the Cluetrain Manifesto: honest comments from employees, unfiltered, going directly to customers.
And, in this case, our Net fairy godmother has the last word. Truth, justice, and a testimonial to the power of the Net. Right.
This conversation wasnít simply a business correspondence. It was among lots of people, ordinary folks. These people are writing in their own voices because they want to talk, to help, to contribute. If itís not altruism, itís something close to it -- with maybe an occasional touch of revenge. We listen to their voices to decide whom to trust, and we can come to some pretty accurate conclusions about whoís on the mark and whoís full of hot air.
Thereís even overt comic relief and some entertainment. We listen carefully to what wasnít said, and who didnít participate in the conversation. The Saturn dealers are conspicuous by their absence. Their silence speaks as loudly as their words might have, had they joined in. The Saturn mechanic was speaking for his company in a new way: honestly, openly, probably without his bossís explicit sanction. He gave away secrets, took a risk, was humanized -- and he greatly served the interests of Saturn. He and others like him are changing the way Saturn supports its customers. And Saturn corporate might not even know itís happening.
This puts a completely different spin on "talk is cheap." The mechanicís e-mail didnít cost Saturn a nickel. He wrote it on his own time. Companies need to harness this sort of caring and let its viral enthusiasm be communicated in employeesí own voices. Pay a little, get a lot. Talk is cheap.
Technology is making these conversational needles lots easier to find in the Internet haystack. There are search services anyone can use to find this stuff. General purpose newsgroup searchers like deja.com keep conversations like these online for varying lengths of time. Some for a very long time. The Internet has a wonderfully retentive memory, and weíre constantly working to make it easier to retrieve little-used trivia from its magnetic depths. Donít bet against customersí ability to type your organizationís equivalent of "lousy saturn customer service" into their favorite search engine and see your latest ugly truth displayed on their computer screen. And theyíll chime in and tell their story. Your story.
ChatChat gets a bad rap. The Web canard says all chat sessions degenerate into conversations about sex within five minutes. It ainít so. Because it is immediate -- taking place in realtime -- chat can enable conversation that feels more genuine, more substantial, and more human than any other Net channel.
The aspect of chat that still amazes me is that it can compress distance, enabling globe-spanning conversation in a visceral, obvious way. E-mail can connect people over the same distances, but it doesnít trigger the sense of wonder I experience when I see words appearing on my screen typed live by someone half a world away. Hereís a snippet of chat conversation between two friends. The chat session was set up following an international artists workshop held in Tblisi, Georgia, and ran for several months. Belt is in London, Annie in Tblisi.
One definition of community is a group of people who care about each other more than they have to. This isnít a business exchange, even remotely. It is conversation, the verbal glue binding people separated by geography into a community. Chatís important to us corporate types because itís a medium where itís almost impossible to operate within the old rules. Because chat is a "live" medium, thereís little leeway for faking a voice, for a sophist approximation of a person. You can adopt a new persona, but youíre going to need to button it all the way up and live it, or weíll be able to tell thereís someone else underneath. Chat is CB radio on steroids. Itís immediate and unwashed. If you canít type and think at the same time, youíre in deep weeds. We canít broadcast, canít message, canít spew corporate pabulum in a chat environment. If business could successfully integrate chat into its marketing universe, companies would be on their way to shaking off some of the mass-media shackles separating them from customers.
One of the more interesting uses of a chat service has been to provide live customer support for Web sites without resorting to expensive telephone call centers. Liveperson.com is selling a service using a pop-up chat client connected to a 24/7 call center to provide live, on-the-spot support to Web customers. Each support rep can field up to four simultaneous chat sessions. Customers get an immediate, interactive support person to answer their questions.
Thereís none of the hit-or-miss multiday waiting we get with e-mail support, no phone cost to the customer or vendor. Commerce sites have reportedly been experiencing dramatically increased sales from the high-touch attention they can give their customers.
Web PagesThe Web lets us look into other peopleís lives in an intimate way. It enables us to see people as they are, close up. Have you ever been browsing for information, read an interesting page, followed the authorís name link, and tripped through his personal pages, read his badly written poetry, looked at pictures of his dog, cat, family, friends, and trip to the Bahamas?
For instance, while brow-sing slashdot.org, I read a comment from Chris Worth, followed a breadcrumb trail to www.chrisworth.com and was captivated by his personal Web phantasmagoria -- including a cogent comparison of users of Microsoft productivity tools to frogs in pots of heating water, and a scary little piece about his view of helicopters. Another time, I searched for how-to information about a software program I was installing, found an article written by Glenn Fleishman, clicked on his byline link to www.glenns.org and was engrossed in his story of how he fought Hodgkinís disease and won.
I do this frequently. In my mindís eye, I watch myself clicking off my intended path, wondering what the draw is, why am I allowing myself to be diverted from my goal. Itís because I enjoy listening to people. They give me windows into their lives, providing substance as a foil to the superficial factual gloss of their day jobs. Iím seduced into spending time staring at evidence of their humanity, despite my better judgment against such a "waste of time." And then I do it again. And again.
The fact that Web pages are conversations hasnít sunk in because they look like publications. But they are conversations: expressions of individual voice looking for response. The Web pages we revisit often have feedback mechanisms and change over time in response to that feedback. Further, they must change visibly, or people wonít come back. We expect change, reaction, reflection of our comments and feedback. This is not just true with respect to personal Web pages. Thereís a very strong desire for corporate Web pages to have a human feel -- to speak to us in some genuine way. This desire cries out for communication thatís less formal, less professional, less anonymous, and more for the people reading than for the company doing the writing.
Hart Scientific, Inc. (www.hartscientific.com) posted a convenient comparison of conversational versus traditional writing on their Web site. They have two versions of their Y2K compliance page. You can tell them apart:
We seem to know, intuitively, when something spoken, written, or recorded is sincere and honest -- when it comes from another personís heart, rather than being a synthesis of corporatespeak filtered by myriad iterations of editing, trimming, and targeting. Thereís an inherent pomposity in much of what passes for corporate communication today. Missing are the voice, humor, and simple sense of worth and honesty that characterize person-to-person conversation.
We survived Y2K, but thatís not the biggest challenge we face. The need for honest speech, to ordinary people, hasnít gone away. Web-savvy consumers are ignoring online brochures. An organization, as presented via the Web, must have a human voice, must stand for something, mean something, want to meet people, and show theyíre trying to understand those people.
Millions and Millions Served
and millions of like-minded netizens? Sure, I could do it
with a phalanx of smart people reaching out and touching
electronically, but then my fledgling companyís burn rate
would increase faster than I could raise capital. Where is
the balance there? Seems like any mass-produced message
(even tailored for a given "market") will be disingenuous
to the savvy.
- Jody Lentz, e-mail to cluetrain.com
Is having conversations with lots of constituents really practical? Yes. Our conversations are already reaching more customers than we know. People have other means of hearing conversations besides talking to us directly. They can "eavesdrop" on conversations we have with others by reading other peopleís e-mail posted to the Web, or by reading posts in newsgroups. The volume of conversation about us we donít participate in directly is almost always greater than the volume we are personally involved in. We respond not only to the honesty and integrity of our conversations on the Net but also to those indicators of integrity in other peopleís conversations. Our choice was never to be in all the conversations, but to be honest and open in those we do engage in.
Companies will survive employees telling their truths, their stories in a business context, without instituting draconian controls on their ability to speak out when and to whom they please. We listen to individuals differently than we do to organizational speech. When a company publishes PR, itís trying to give us a complete message about who they are and what they do. We have to decide to trust or distrust the company based on a single statement. Well-written PR leaves us with few avenues for corroboration and second opinions. Itís meant to be self-contained.
On the other hand, when I converse with people inside a company, I hear stories from individuals. Theyíre all grains of sand, their combined voices richer and more diverse than the univocal speech of corporate mouthpieces. We add up all the anecdotes we hear from individuals. We have to trust our own averaging, our own summing of stories, our own divining of truth. With more people, more stories in the mix, itís harder for one negative story to sway me. This speaks to the need to have many people in an organization talking to customers. A single "corporate story" is a fiction in a world of free conversation. Corporate stories, like corporate cultures, are informed by individuals over time through many contacts, conversations, and opportunities to tell stories.
Stories play a large part in the success of organizations. With stories, we teach, pass along knowledge of our craft to colleagues, and create a sense of shared mission. Will coordinating what a large number of people have to say be a problem? Yes and no. The problem is not in the effort required to coordinate voices, but in the attitude that assumes speech demands coordination and control. A culture of story-telling, one encouraging the collection and sharing of knowledge in conversation, may need encouragement and example-setting, but it will certainly fail in the face of attempted restraint.
When we were building Sunís first Intel-based workstation, the 386i, we used mock magazine reviews of the product as a way to test ideas for the design of the computer and the software. As the design progressed, we settled on one "review" as an example of a magazine article that might appear when the product shipped. The ersatz review was a hit with team members: it became a decision yardstick for months of subsequent design and implementation questions. People also started giving copies of the review to customers and using it as a conversation starter with friends and colleagues in other companies. The review wasnít a product pitch -- it required a person to deliver it, explain it, and fill in lots of details. It wasnít a data sheet, but a foil for stories and conversations. Its value was not in creating some kind of official spin, but in enabling the reliable transfer of knowledge and new ideas.
A critical aspect of success with large numbers of customers lies in listening to them. Itís not enough for employees to talk to customers. There must be a way for the fruits of employee conversations to trickle back into an organizationís plans. When Sun started to address the problem of providing technical support to the Java developer community, we made a glaring error. We assumed our answers to technical questions were more valuable than answers from sources outside our group, than answers from our customers.
Sunís first launch of the Java Developer Connection Web site was an unabashed effort to package a fairly sleazy business proposition: selling per-incident support for a poorly supported and less than adequately documented software product. We were doing a lousy job of helping Java developers. A bright marketing wag had the idea to sell people answers to their questions for one hundred bucks a pop. When a licensing engineer who dealt with customers day in and day out posed the question, "Why should they feel good about paying us for answers that should be in the docs, or for consulting on problems caused by the instability of our products?", the marketing folks decided to use a bit of sugarcoating. For $495 a year, a customer could purchase a "subscription" including five questions, called "support incidents," and a package including technical newsletters and other goodies. Unfortunately, the marketing team focused on providing the hundred-dollar support answers and didnít spend much time setting up the information-publishing pipeline for the sugarcoating. We had fewer than two hundred paying customers for the service. Almost all used up their magic answers in less than a month, then started clamoring for the "real" value, the (grossly understaffed) information subscription that was to be their pipeline to successful use of Java. To add insult to injury, our own cross-divisional inefficiencies cost us $110 for each question answered. You do the math.
Time for phase two. We shut down the site, and relaunched a free service with a few critical new features. The staffing problem hadnít gotten better, so we brainstormed ideas for getting the Java community to help us solve their problems. We now have a free site with question-and-answer forums where developers answer each other directly. We added a tap into Sunís Java software bug database and provided a means for developers to add their own notes and work-arounds to our bug information, as well as vote for the bugs they wanted us to fix soonest. A reverse pipeline into the company sent the bug votes to our engineers to help with prioritization. The site hit one million registered members in two years, a far cry from the two hundred in six months that the initial, traditional support efforts yielded. Moreover, the site became a nexus for conversations about our products and services, and for conversations about other peopleís solutions to our problems.
Symantec took a similarly creative approach when they first launched their CafÈ product, a suite of programming tools for Java developers. They had one person virtually living in the public support newsgroups. He responded to questions, fielded tech support requests, and generally got himself known as a very straight shooter about Symantecís products. He was only one person, but he was almost single-handedly responsible for the developer communityís positive take on Symantec. He wasnít there to promote, but strictly to assist. He gave honest answers to hard questions, acknowledged product shortcomings, and painted an honest, open picture of the productís strengths and weaknesses. The developer communityís collective opinion of Symantec soared.
Another anecdote from the public relations history of Sunís Java team paints an anti-example. In the first year and a half that Sunís Java group existed, members of the engineering team spoke directly with customers and the press. Java grew from a glimmer, a possibility, to a platform with thousands of curious, turned-on early adopters. There was a general perception that Sunís Java team listened, answered questions, and was actively engaged with the community of Java developers.
After about eighteen months, the workload grew to such a point that we started shutting down our channels to the outside world. PR and marketing took over much of our contact with the outside world, and we put our heads down to deal with the increasing demands on the engineering team. The reaction from our developers was stated in these precise words many times over:
"you disappeared." As we went underground, the perception of the Java group in the marketplace changed from "a small team of great engineers producing neat stuff" to "a hype engine to push Sunís stock." In projects that allowed engineers time to come back online more often, customers cut the engineers far more slack in their attempts to get things right than did the customers of their more close-mouthed brethren.
In such scenarios, of course, engaging in trivial conversations can chew up valuable time -- though itís a tough call to know whatís truly trivial and what deepens credibility in the conversational space. Sometimes responding to a joke with a one-line e-mail laugh can do wonders. We still need to answer all the mail, but we can do things to eliminate some of the more repetitious communication. Generally, people inclined to find answers themselves will seek out a live person when they want one, based on their own needs and ideas. Most of us would rather not be forced into a conversation by inadequate access to key product information. Investment in learning from the one-on-one conversations we have, and adding to the public knowledge base founded on that learning, pay off in freeing up time to have more interesting conversations. Iíve seen reductions of up to 75 percent in support e-mail traffic simply by creating informative lists of frequently asked questions (FAQs) and making people aware of them at the point where theyíre likely to be scratching their heads over a particular type of question. Making certain, of course, the new content isnít written in corporatespeak!
I try to spread the burden of dealing with customer conversations throughout an organization. I make everyone spend some time answering questions from customers. Not only do I mine everyoneís budget for the support costs (letís face it, by the time Iím trying to find money to answer the mail, itís too late) but I also give everyone involved a tap into our customersí heads. It results in a lot more shared awareness of our mission, strengths, and opportunities.
Silence Is FatalOnline markets will talk about companies whether companies like it or not. People will say whatever they like, without caring whether theyíre overheard or quoted -- in fact, having oneís views passed along is usually the whole point. Companies canít stop customers from speaking up, and canít stop employees from talking to customers. Their only choice is to start encouraging employees to talk to customers -- and empowering them to act on what they hear. Freed from restrictions perceived as an unwelcome straitjacket, and are ultimately unenforceable anyway, workers can generate enormous goodwill as everyday evangelists for products and services theyíve crafted themselves, and thus take genuine pride in.
"Customer loyalty" is not a commodity a company owns. Where it exists at all -- and the cases in which it does are rare -- loyalty to a company is based on respect. And that respect is based on how the company has conducted itself in conversations with the market. Not conversing, participating, is not an option. If we donít engage people inside and outside our organization in conversation, someone else will. Start talking.