Saturday, 1 March 2014

Adapt or die (or Embracing technological change)

Alvin Toffler, described by Wikipedia as a “writer and futurist, known for his works discussing the digital revolution, communication revolution and technological singularity” once said that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”.

He has a point.

In 2014, if you don’t understand new science and technology you’re really at a huge disadvantage. If you can’t understand the basic facts about things like diet, sexual health and vaccination you and your family are at enormous risk. If you don’t understand the basics of climate change, economic globalization and modern communication technology your career, your wealth and your quality of life are going to be limited.

If you don’t keep up with progress in science and technology you really are going to be at a huge disadvantage.

The same goes for companies offering service to consumers like you and me.

Whether they like it or not (and most of them don’t) more and more of their customers are using new mechanisms for telling each other about the services we receive. At the basic level they’re using text messages to tell each other about their experiences. The more advanced and better equipped are emailing each other. An impressive proportion are now using Whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook to share their experiences.

I admit that Facebook is the social media facility I’m most familiar with so I’ll just comment on that. Ask someone else about Twitter.

The effect of Facebook has been astonishing, even in a small community like ours in Botswana. There are several Botswana-based Facebook groups with thousands of members, including ours, that allow any member to post almost anything they want and every member of that group can be immediately alerted to the post. A company that has transgressed and offended a customer can be the subject of ridicule and humiliation, whether correctly or not, within moments across the globe.

The danger is not just from the comments, it can be just as much from the reaction companies display to negative comments.

In the past few months we’ve seen a manager of a security company respond to complaints about his company’s descending levels of service by insisting that complaints can only be dealt with by following the official company complaints procedure and that Facebook comments weren’t an acceptable way of raising concerns. The reaction to his comments from the entire community was simple. Sorry pal, that’s not your decision to make, we’ll complain however we see fit. Live with it.

A few weeks later a DJ in a hotel responded to complaint on Facebook about the service at the hotel’s trendy, pseudo-chic bar where he worked by claiming the people who attended the bar were “classy” whereas their competitor’s bar was largely patronized by “hookers”. You can imagine the firestorm this ignited. Even though he deleted his comments as soon as the reaction began that was too late. People had already taken screenshots of his comments and seconds later he was more famous than he cared to be. It took all the efforts of the hotel management and their PR company to put out that fire.

The hotel, even though the situation wasn’t their fault, learned the hard way that Facebook can be a very dangerous weapon.

Even on our Facebook group things can often get a little heated. We’ve had a variety of comments about service providers who consumers have described as “useless”, “incompetent” and “negligent”. Our policy is simple. Words like that can only be used when there is clear evidence that they are true. Until then we remove such comments and either encourage the original poster to use more measured language or to send us the comments privately. Or just perhaps calm down a bit.

We’ve even seen a couple of occasions when suppliers have seen these comments, become angry and threatened both us and the author with legal action, forgetting that over-reaction is ten times worse than taking no action at all, particularly when the posts have been removed.

The problem is that people forget that Facebook is the technological equivalent of standing on top of a tall building shouting through a loudhailer while being broadcast live (and being recorded) on TV, radio and then printed in the newspapers.

As they say on police programs, anything you say on Facebook may be recorded and later used against you.

Before you get the impression that I’m against social media, that’s not true. I think that facilities like Facebook are a critical part of the future of customer service. They just have to be understood and used wisely by both consumers and suppliers. Just like historical technological innovations like call centers offered new ways of satisfying customers, they have to be used correctly if they’re to be useful.

I’d go one stage further. I believe that the simple truth is that companies that embrace new ideas like the social are more likely to succeed, those that reject it are destined for failure.

Whether you like it or not it’s true. You might not like the new social media, you might be skeptical, even dismissive of things like Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp but that’s a bit like my grandparents who were skeptical about television, my parents who were skeptical about satellite and cable TV and my contemporaries who are skeptical about the internet and iPads. You’re welcome to live in the past, in the technological Dark Ages if you wish, but the rest of the world will move on without you. Progress is heartless, it doesn’t care a bit about the people it leaves behind. Meanwhile those of us who accept it and who perhaps even welcome change will be richer and happier because of it.

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