This article originally appeared on Wired.co.uk, but it seems to have been lost during a redesign - which is weird, as my other work for the site still lives on. In any case, it's saved here for posterity.
In a week where a 17-year old is arrested for tweeting first and thinking later, it’s safe to say we know human beings have limitations: we’re frequently grumpy, insulting and spontaneously angry. So why do we expect public figures and companies to effortlessly rise above their instincts?
I remember hearing Gyles Brandreth talking about his time as an MP, and commenting about how deeply members of parliament loathe the average voter, especially during election canvassing time. He recalled making nice with people he’d normally go out of his way to avoid, and nod along passively as they discussed matters they barely understood with infuriating passion. Of course, given Mr Brandreth lost his seat in 1997, he only had to endure two campaigns (and only one successful), and was telling the story in his usual flamboyantly embellished style.
Still, it would be amazing if this wasn’t true of all politicians on some level: they are only human, and as humans we don’t half spend a lot of time silently bemoaning half-wits in our heads. But politicians aren’t the only ones that common wisdom dictates must be super-humanly pleasant. Take a look at any company’s Facebook page, and you’ll invariably see a bunch of entitled, rude and pushy consumers threatening to withdraw their custom over the mildest offence. I’ve seen 'fans' moaning about late deliveries, no money off coupons and even not winning a competition as if they’d just had a company badmouth their mothers.
This is universally met with friendly platitudes from the company, asking for more details to help (or at least soothing words to placate in the case of competitions), showing all the patience of Job. This is enabling behaviour, creating more whiners hoping for freebies, or just some attention: a kind of social media Münchhausen syndrome. Counter intuitively, the ‘nicer’ the brand, the more rude their customers seem to be. The squeaky wheel gets the grease for sure, but there's so much that it's become a slipping hazard.
And here’s the thing: although in the early days of social media marketing, expert, personalised and public customer service was seen as something unique and amazing (Zappos, a shoe company since bought by Amazon were early trailblazers in this field), it’s now everywhere and expected. Which brings me onto a surprising home truth: people actually quite like it when the mask slips and public figures act like a normal person, with anger, wrath and bile.
Just ask John Prescott. During Labour’s 2001 election campaign, Prescott - a former amateur boxer - threw a left hook at a protester who had egged him at point blank range. The media howled and the Tories demanded Blair sack his Deputy. A poll later discovered that the punch actually did him no harm, with the majority of the public approving of his actions - or rather his sharp reactions.
Given Prescott is not a southpaw, he’d have very possibly broken his victim’s jaw if he’d thrown a right hook. Lucky he struck with the left: a hospitalised voter may not have played out as well in his Hull East constituency, where he still polled 64.6% of the vote 22 days later. At the very least he probably wouldn’t have called his 2008 autobiography “Pulling No Punches”. Prescott continued as Deputy Prime Minister, and entered the House of Lords nine years later.
Another story springs to mind, attributed to then AFC Wimbledon chairman Sam Hammam. The story goes that Hammam was confronted by an angry fan shouting about the awful performance he’d just watched, and screaming that it wasn’t worth the cost of him coming every week. Hammam allegedly responded by tearing up the fan's season ticket, and writing him a cheque on the spot. I can find no reference to this online, but while we can question its veracity, it clearly has a natural appeal as a story. The moral? It’s better to ditch whiners, complainers and moaners than to try and fake your way to keeping them. And these people are often bluffing anyway: no doubt the fan came back and bought a new season ticket, tail firmly between legs. Do you believe an irate social media user when he vows, all in caps, never to buy a product ever again? Me neither.
While writing this article, I also discovered Dick’s Last Resort - a chain of American restaurants that intentionally dish out rude and abusive service from their staff. It wouldn’t have become a chain if on some weird level, people didn’t like having their napkins thrown at them by someone trained to show guests fierce disdain. Doubly so when it's directed at their fellow diners.
So far, no big companies have told any of their whining customers where to stick it (hint: not a Facebook comments box) as far as I can tell, but surely it’s only a matter of time. We saw a step in this direction a couple of weeks ago when @o2 responded to a tweet telling them to “suck dick in hell” with “maybe later, got tweets to send right now”, which playfully rose above it, and predictably generated much kudos across the internet. We do occasionally see public figures give as good as they get to their trolls online, but it’s harder to do that as a company’s social media guru without autonomy and the knowledge that you’d still have a job without the niceties.
We will see a change in attitudes to online customer service at some point, but just as the current ‘customer is infallible’ approach was pioneered by small start-ups, it won’t be a big company that takes a chance and lets fly. No doubt it’ll be a spindly backbencher of a brand, rather than a heavy-weight peer, who throws the first left hook online. How the world reacts will define whether it becomes a single assault or a Facebook wide brouhaha.