The 3 “Impossible” Conversations for Corporations

I advise some of the top brands in the world about how to use social media tools to connect with customers. While many are getting it right, many will get it wrong –with great embarrassment to their brand, and personal careers.

Shel Israel write a very compelling piece on why many corporations are going to get social media wrong. The best possible use case of social media is customers talking with employees of a company in an open and transparent way. Not hiring Mr. T in a “Viral Video” to show how you think you can relate to CIOs.

I’ve told several executives that the most important –yet most difficult –conversations they can have are the following:

The 3 Impossible Conversations for Corporations

#1: Asking for Feedback
It’s so hard for companies to ask for feedback. Take a look around, how many ‘corporate’ blogs ask for raw, unfiltered product feedback. It’s scary for a few reasons: 1) Most companies want to talk about how great they are, not expose themselves to weaknesses. 2) Most companies don’t have the appetite to listen to the feedback, then do anything with it. 3) Most companies don’t know how to respond to the feedback, they don’t want to promise it will happen, nor acknowledge a weakness.

#2: Saying positive things about your competitors
Customers aren’t stupid. In fact, they know who your competition is, and they talk about amongst each other. Yet, for some reason, this is very, very difficult for companies to swallow. There’s some unwritten law that companies shouldn’t talk about their competition (unless you’re criticizing them), it’s welded deeply into nearly every corporate culture. The thing is, customers and prospects talk about your competition, and they will often be analyzing you, and them, and not everything said will be negatives. Companies that recognize that their worthy competition has some strengths have the hardest time admitting it in public –yet those that do, become more relevant, trusted, and authentic than ever before.

#3: Admitting you were wrong
Corporations should always show their happiest face to the market –at least that’s what corporate communications team tells us. Yet in reality, no company, (none, nil, zilch) are perfect. Why pretend to be the absolute best in everything that you do when the rest of the market (including those who are buying and deciding on services) know better. Companies have a hard time admitting they’re wrong, instead, choose to spin, redirect, or ignore what most are saying.

Sure these conversations are difficult to have, but they are the same conversations your customer are having with your prospects –so why the veil? Here’s a few ways to think about these challenging conversations because in reality, these aren’t that “impossible”.

It really isn’t that hard to ask for feedback, say nice things about the competition, or to admit your wrong. #1 will come even if you don’t try, that’s life. #2 Will happen at every conference, online chatroom, or social network in your industry. And hey, #3, well if you’ve ever been married, you should already be an expert at admitting you’re wrong. Being married to the most wonderful person in the world is the same as loving your customers. So learn how to say “Sorry honey, will you please forgive me?” I do, just about every day.

Some folks are more advanced than most I deal with, such as David who says this post is stating the obvious. He provides some good analysis, be sure to read him.

44 Replies to “The 3 “Impossible” Conversations for Corporations”

  1. Indeed, what’s looming on the horizon is the humanizing of the brand archtype“trasitioning them from sterile, hard cornered octagons comprised of: visual identity, mission statements, advertising, PR, product/service lines, web 1.0, and investor relations, to more rounded, and textured, contradictory, authentic and real entities that reflect the core components of their structure: people.

    Brands, as people, doing business with people.

  2. I agree 100%. Being a community manager know what it is like to take in good and bad feedback. But if your going to create the BEST possible product for your consumers then you need that feedback. Having also done Product Manager I couldn’t even think about launching a product without getting user feedback from a small subset of everyday users. Companies need to return to the suggestion box and READ the suggestions.

    Like I drink Jamba juice DAILY. I asked the manager at the store for a grape flavored Jamba juice. A few months later they add grape. But Jamba took off the best flavor in Cherry Charger. A ton of people complained about it but Jamba never listened.


  3. It is hard enough as an individual to actively seek input, praise the competition, and admit weaknesses, let alone a household name brand whose economic survival depends on reputation. These are tough times for boardrooms in established brands, when they themselves have not yet fully integrated with interactive capabilities from 5 or 10 years ago (i.e. email in some cases).

    It is interesting that social media can now actually enable a brand to appear to be transparent and embracing of customers (thus creating a positive reputation) in the current landscape, particularly as there is no long-standing record from the past that can be easily interrogated.

    Consider political candidates in 30 years time who will have to acknowledge their life-time of social media activities in the lead up to elections. They simply won’t be able to erase their past online integration. No amount of ‘spin’ will erase the truth. And so, transparency is an inevitable strategic objective for brands also. The brands that embrace it will have competitive advantage over those that drag their heals.

    Social Media is no longer a niche idea as ALL media has to be social in one form or another, and soon.

    The idea of ‘broadcast’ marketing and the ‘spin’ game can’t survive in the interaction age.

  4. I strongly believe that this issue extends well beyond social media. In writing a bit about “vendor relationship management” last year (ref. Project VRM) I touched on parallel problems arising from putting CRM as it’s currently formulated at the heart of customer relationships:

    A vendor/customer relationship based on today™s CRM places far too much weight on each party reading the gestures”the implicit statements and questions”made by the other, leaving little or no room for explicit communication. CRM relationships are like a newly-married couple that never speak to one another, relying entirely on body language and facial expressions, mood and gesture, to interpret one another™s behavior.

    These non-verbal layers enhance communication, and help to create a rich, textured relationship, but without a foundation of clear, open, and explicit communication, these readings of the other party are guesses.

    Each guess about what the other partner wants or needs from the relationship leads to another guess: do they like what I™ve done, or not? Would the other idea that I had have been better received? A model of the other partner is built, layer upon layer, and each party is engaging with the model of their partner, not with the actual person.

  5. I wonder if these three will change over the course of a year? Feels like its already happening, but we’re sure to hit potholes along the way.

    Thanks, Jeremiah, for sharing more great wisdom!

  6. Hi Jeremiah,

    Great post, and unfortunately very true. I would also ad that many corporation are scared to ask for help as well, but I suppose that can go under the feedback section.

    I’m always amazed at how many wonderful ideas/solutions I hear from people that don’t work directly for the company.

  7. You hit some real tough ones alright. But I have to think a company with a strong sales & marketing group would already know how to approach each of these directly with customers.

    For some reason there is a perceived difference when doing it online. Likely, because online marketing as a mass communication vehicle, is mistakenly considered a broadcast medium rather than a dialogue.

    As more companies get used to using social media, my sense is they will realize they can repurpose existing policies and practices to allow their bloggers, community managers and online personas to meet these head on.

  8. This time I do not completely agree with you. There are quite a few corporations here in Australia that are embracing social media and understand that it is an opportunity to listen to their customers and get feedback.
    These are companies that were hiring expensive research companies until recent and were/are conducting online surveys.
    They were direct marketers in the 90’s and see that social networks are platforms where you do not have to pay for promotions and other campaigns to get customer data or preferences and interests- but customers are volunteering that information.

    Community is an old thing – just recently discovered online – has always existed offline.

    Same with self-publishing – a different way of self-expression and only so much of individual self expression is relevant to the community.

    Whilst mainstream corporations are still struggling with what the new wave of online community-ism means to them – there are quite a few that understand that it is in a way a new DM-paradigm – where old rules still rule – be RELEVANT and remember that it is about collecting information FOR customers – not about them.

    As soon as you get these last two wrong – willingly or unwillingly – you have started to dig your companies grave.

  9. Hans

    Thanks for this, there are companies everywhere that are struggling with this, and some who get it right. Even for those that get it right, they’ve many internal struggles as they cope with changing the DNA of what we know as corporate culture.

  10. Jeremiah-
    So is changing the internal culture top down or bottom up? I say bottom up can influence the top, yet the top is scared of getting “out there”. Beyond the many times I have said “the conversation is happening already, we have to embrace it” do you have any raw examples for us, the New Media geeks, to physically show (#’s & all) that it really works?

  11. Just want to add to this nice discussion that in fact 2 out of the 3 “Impossible Conversations for Corporations”:
    #1: Asking for Feedback
    #3: Admitting you were wrong

    are also very much a problem for successfully implementing Enterprise 2.0 experiments (lack of openness / transparency).

    So for some companies, what’s (not!) happening on the outside is also reflected on the inside.

  12. I really like the relationship analogy that you made.

    Essentially, businesses that are still stuck in their old ways are like those stereotypical egoistic males who would rather die than acknowledge their weaknesses, or ask for help (or ask for directions?) or even admit that they were ever wrong.

    With this age of Web 2.0, the old way just doesn’t cut it. Put it another way, BS just doesn’t cut it anymore. The egoistic males gotta go. We need companies that listen, ask for help when needed and admit when they’re wrong.

  13. On #3: Admitting you were wrong.
    Companies or businesses can’t be compared to marriage or into any personal relationship.

    First. Companies that have done something wrong can admit it to their customers but make it sure that they have a very strategic plan B – to shift everything and start something new. Try not to correct the same brand that has failed even at the very first time. Marriage can still continue, broken hearts can be mend but brands can’t.

    Second. Good marketers should spin and redirect things. It’s easy to start a new brand or a product than start a new company (or even change its business name – things will smell). Market’s decision is very much different from a warm-hearted spouse.

    Third. Saying sorry everyday to your spouse and doing wrong things everyday is hypocrite. (“Hey, wife, please open your mind.” ) Customers are smarter and sensitive than wives. In a relationship, each one is meant to forgive, to give each other (the same person) a chance.

  14. Totally agree with these three. As an extension, I’d possibly also add “resist the urge to try and ‘edit’ the feedback and conversation”.

    It’s tempting, particularly when the feedback is negative, to ‘edit’ it if you can. DON’T!

    If you ever get caught doing it, the fallout going to be a million miles worse than whatever the negative feedback was you tried to erase.

  15. Well, You invited “feedback” here and what did you get? a fair proportion thought you were “right on the money”; some say its an “ongoing issue”. Our Aussie friend who disagrees must remember that logistically the population in Aus is very widespread, why research was conduvted a little differently.
    I don’t believe you need to ask for feed back. When something ain’t right with your product you’ll hear about it.
    Having said that, retention of the punter is paramount. As a matter of course a good strategy is to always up-date your punter with news and new improvements and on-sell.
    The problem with mentioning your competitors is, that suddenly your punter is left with choice.
    When faced with a choice or a decision making situation, 60 % will not buy anything!
    The always listen thing; well, people will tell you what they would like but often have no idea of what they need.
    Asking them doesn’t solve the problem. All you get is the opportunity for some PR. Let them believe they are part of the decision making process.
    It doesn’t mean that everytime someone has an idea that you must be the one to supply it.
    Gathering feedback means ( if you are lucky) that you get hundreds of opinions and ideas. I never saw a statue to a commitee-ever!
    You are sought as an authority on your business. stay authoritive.
    Let’s be clear, displaying your business in a badly written, poorly created, low budget, unattractive, same as everyone else light needing feedback – guess what you get? Exactly what you pitched for! A small piece of the low budget, same as everyone else, needing help, unattractive market!

    And – your prospects will suspect that if they do business with you, they will get more of the same!

  16. I agree that a company has authority to offer and that feedback can be disorganised and unhelpful if a company or brand does not properly use its authority to structure the feedback into something that is both beneficial for the consumer and the company. The great thing about “the always listen thing” is that it combines a company’s expertise with consumer experience. More and more today expertise is just not enough. People are too suspiscious about how easily facts fall in line with pre-proposed theories. Consumers instead turn to other consumers with experience to validate the expertise. This is why things like the Amazon Reader Reviews or sites like Metacritic are so popular. Advertising is making space, rather than giving way, to word of mouth and reputation.

  17. I read similar article also named nnial 2007 – salvatore iaconesi – poetry, and it was completely different. Personally, I agree with you more, because this article makes a little bit more sense for me

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