Please insult our customers here

I was at the HR Software Show in London for two days last week, and one of the topics I was talking about was employee misuse of social media, something that HR professionals are rightly concerned about. Research by Proofpoint last year showed that 8% of US companies had fired employees for inappropriate use of social media. While the figure in the UK is much lower, there have still been several high-profile incidents over the last year or so. Dixons staff writing on an unofficial (but open) Facebook group described their customers as “stupid” and “arseholes”. Similarly, British Airways staff described their customers as “smelly” and “annoying”. Virgin Atlantic’s employees described their customers as “chavs” (a uniquely British insult – look it up on Wikipedia!) and complained of cockroaches on their planes.

Of course, the initial reaction most people have to all of these incidents is “how could they be so stupid?”. But I’ve been asking myself a question about this – would they have happened if the companies in question had provided a social intranet for informal chat between employees where this sort of discussion is tolerated? Something I often say about Social CRM is that if you don’t provide a forum for your customers to express their opinion, don’t be surprised if they find somewhere else on the internet to do so in a far less constructive way. It occurs to me that for large companies, the same is true of employees.

But would a large company like British Airways or Dixons really tolerate a forum inside the company which insulted its customers? Very unlikely. But casual expression of frustration at work is something everyone does, and in this day and age, that’s just as likely to happen online as offline. So it’s really not surprising that this discussion does end up on Facebook.

It’s often said that social networking is an unstoppable tidal wave. So maybe companies should accept that this sort of discussion is going to happen somewhere, and therefore it’s better to have it in private, where a certain level of control can be exercised and the worst excesses can be prevented. Such an idea would have been laughable 5 years ago, and it would take a brave company to do it now. But it doesn’t seem quite so ridiculous as it once might have done.

[ Footnote: no, BroadVision don’t have a customer insult forum…. yet! ]