Online channels are managed by human beings with feet and feelings
It has been over a decade since I proudly took on the new role of ‘Online Communications Manager’. At the time this role was as innovative as today’s social media strategist and online community manager. You cannot imagine how excited I was to improve the company’s current internal and external websites, run website diagnostics and focus groups on how to improve the website, and in general, make our online portals sing and dance. I was young, creative, and excited to share my passion for all things online.
What a shock to me, early in my career, when I realized how negatively people reacted to changes to the company website.
Move the location of their favourite website? Don’t you dare!
Change the large banner that links to the company bulletin board? How could you?
I soon realized that websites, especially in the early 2000s were very new for many employees and any change at all could bring about headaches and even calls from a vice president’s office. That story is for another day.
Interestingly, the one thing that garnered the most visits, but also the more issues, was our company employee directory. It far outranked any website for number of visits. People didn’t write down a colleague’s telephone number or save it to their contacts, they would simply return, repeatedly, to find their phone number.
Why was this issue? Well, imagine, when the employee’s contact information was outdated, missing or just plain wrong?! The horror! Rita got a new haircut? Why did she have red hair in her profile picture?!
I will never forget the day an email came into from website feedback page from an employee who was trying to get her contact information fixed. Now before I go on, let me say that the employee directory was fed from a different department and not one that I had any control over. However, this person, while contacting our general feedback email address to tell ‘me’ to ‘pull up my socks and get it fixed’! I was young, a little sensitive, and doing my best. What can I say? It hurt my feelings.
The first thing I remember thinking was that this was a very rude person. Didn’t they read my lovely fact sheets and how-to documents? Didn’t they see the flashing arrows (well, okay, they didn’t actually flash) and all the tips we posted to help people update the employee directory profile? No, they didn’t because that is not what people choose to see. People’s experience with websites is very different, some react to images and others focus more on words.
What has been consistent throughout my career is how much more aggressive people can be when they are communicating through a computer. In an email, you can insult someone for not doing their job, for mixing up your order, or just in general messing up. This is normally done using language that you would never do otherwise. Now, I’m not naïve. Some people really are as rude in person as they are in an email, but they are the minority.
I eventually grew a thicker skin. I became accustomed to getting negative feedback emails about the websites that I managed. I resolved this by picking up the phone to contact the individual and explain how the issue could be resolved. Each time, the person on the other end of the line would apologize for their language. Some were even a little sheepish about what they had written.
What had I done differently? I had put a face to an email address. I wasn’t feedback@XX.ca. I was Christine. In conversation, they learned that I was a human being. I had a daughter. I loved my cat. During our discussions about their website issue, they discovered the email they had sent went to someone who did not deserve their wrath.
The same thing applies to social media. Day after day, I read Facebook comments or tweets to companies whose accounts are managed by human beings. I get it. People are frustrated. Their dishwasher isn’t getting fixed. They got the wrong shoes. Their Internet isn’t working. I also see real human beings answering those rants with words like ‘don’t give up on us’ or ‘give us another try’.
No matter how bad the situation, it is never necessary to use bad language or insinuate that everyone who works for the company is an idiot. We know better than to rant and rave in personal conversations (for the most part) but we need to remember that respect is also needed when we type words into an email, tweet, or post.
Social media channels and websites are considered impersonal channels of communications, but in reality, they are not. Someone is watching behind the scenes and usually doing all they can to make the website the best it can be.
Emails strip away the body language that takes up so much of your attention. All that is left is a screen with words written on them, some lovely and some bad. It is up to us to ensure that these words include please, thank you, or whatever the situation requires.
To return to the individual who told me to ‘pull up my socks’. A few months later, I met her face-to-face when she was introduced to me by a mutual friend. Interestingly, when I told her about my role with the company, she remembered sending the email and even acknowledged what she had written was inappropriate. She apologized. It was a nice moment, and while not everyone apologizes, I remember hoping that when her next frustrating moment arose and an email was being typed out furiously and with great acrimony that she would remember online interactions go to human beings like me.