Sunday, April 17, 2011

Three stories that show that anonymity makes people behave badly

1.  Many years ago now, I had a job where I had to drive every day for work from Killcare, on the Central Coast of New South Wales, to Castle Hill, a surburb to the north of Sydney.  It was an hour and a half each way, the first half hour along a stretch of road where the speed limit has since been lowered about 30 kph, but where at that time the morning radio traffic report frequently features stories of accidents, usually "car v. rock wall", that would take whole lanes out of action for the morning.  For most of that year I did the drive in an old Jaguar XJ6, two tons of British engineering with a powerful engine but aging brakes and no modern features like side mirrors or retracting seat belts or window defoggers or little luxuries like that.  It was a dangerous stretch of road, and in the morning everyone on it was a stressed-out Dad or Mum heading into the city to do some job they resented, and they all went way too fast as a rule and acted like jerks.  One of the worst tricks, to gain unfair position in traffic, was to speed up to right behind me in the left-hand lane, which is the slow lane in that part of the world, then when we came to an on-ramp, zoom around me on the wrong side using the on-ramp itself as a passing lane.  This maneuver was always startling because you don't expect someone to do something so egregiously wrong, and the first time or two it happened I was filled with a red-hot, blinding, quaking rage.  But after a while I learned that I couldn't let other drivers get to me.  They might cheat and do studpid, unfair, dangerous things to try to get to work a little faster, but I just had to take a Zen approach, ignore them and drive my own drive.  I also learned to slow my mental metabolism down like a lizard in a freezer, so that the hour and a half seemed to take only a few minutes.  Both of these skills came in handy for international air travel as well.  They were Bodhisattva skills I developed in that cauldron of road rage, the F3.

2.  The next job after the one with the long commute, I was manager for a global company of their Asia, Pacific and Latin America websites.  This was way before the days of "Web 2.0" so it was unusual to hear any direct interations from customers, but we did have a "Contact Us" mailto link on each site, and as manager of all the sites those emails came to me.  It was a time when the US market included a direct sales channel, so US customers could come to our website and order products directly, but in the rest of the world sales still went through a distribution channel, and at every hop there was something like a 13% margin added so the local prices got nowhere near the price available to US customers, and the issue sometimes got a bit sensitive.

One time I got an angry, angry email from a local customer, I think he was in Perth.  He'd installed our product, got an automated screen advertising an upgrade for $99, thought that was great, clicked to order it, and then oops, at some point during the purchase process it became clear that the offer was only available to US customers, and his own upgrade would cost something like $367 (I'm making all these numbers up).  He had a very good point, his own product on his own computer had prompted him to take advantage of the sale price and nowhere was it made clear that the dollars in question weren't Australian dollars.  He had a fair point, we were completely in the wrong, but his email was spittingly angry, vitriolic in the extreme.

So as the manager, I wrote him back, apologized as profusely as a I could, admitted that our ad was misleading, that it had only been intended for US customers but of course launched from his product as well, and offered him a free upgrade which we could mail to him.  I signed my name and gave my title and full contact details.

Well, I got the nicest email back from him.  In order to get his mailing address and sent out the upgrade we had a few messages back and forth, and he was always extremely cordial and grateful and complementary.  I think the vitriol he spilled was at a computer, a set of machines, an impersonal mistake that had enraged him, but when he got a message from me, in my voice, with my name - a message from a real person who listened and apologized and made good (and we also instituted a policy that I tried to police regularly forever of saying "Offer good in US and Canada only" on the .com site, even though consumers should know that site wasn't for everyone, so we put preventative measures in that would prevent anyone else having the negative experience he had), I know that solving his problem made him happier but I still think knowing there was a real person at the end of the email address immediately calmed him down and caused him to behave much better.

3.  More recently, I worked on a product that had launched a change in the market.  This product had been around some 80 years, and they knew from research they had a loyal core of fans, but hadn't really been able to hear from them directly.  In what was in retrospect probably not a wise move, they instituted product reviews on their website at the very time this product change hit the market.  It wasn't quite as bad as New Coke, but they did get what felt like an overwhelming number of negative messages on the new reviews page.  Yes, these were the loyal fans, but they were not happy at all that the product had been messed with.  They had liked it for years, just the way it was, and didn't see why it had to be changed.  Some time later, that same brand launched a Facebook page, and they were worried the same thing would happen, but this time, it turned out that the loyal fans showed up and said mostly nice things, testifying to their long loyalty and how much the brand had meant to them.  The theory among the managers was that because when you post something on a brand's wall in Facebook it displays your own name and your own photo, it prompted people to be nicer.  When they were posting on an anonymous wall with a screen name as an alias, they were much meaner.

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