Something Josh Ledgard said struck me as he was talking about an angry email he got about the introduction of the new web-based MSDN Forums:
I’ve heard Scoble say it a lot… if you work at Microsoft… and you blog… you had better have think [sic] skin. My own experience suggests that having an active blog at Microsoft for any length of time pretty much guarantees you your share of mails like this and it does effect [sic] you… at least it effects [sic] me. Not to get too touchy-feely, but I’m not some Borg drone that doesn’t ever feel insulted. None of the MS Bloggers I’ve met are either. If you send us mail it ends up on the screen of a real person for better or worse. Please think about that before you press send. I’m not saying I’ve never offended anyone with my blog, IM, or e-mail but…
When I posted my latest entry on default instances (and I know I still need to respond to several of the comments left there), one of my coworkers sent me an email saying, more or less, “Ah, I see you’re the poor bastard who was elected to take the brunt of this.” By and large, though, I don’t have much of an issue with the responses that I got – as Josh/Scoble says, you have to have a pretty thick skin (or develop one really quickly) if you’re going to do anything that involves interacting with the community. Some people were definitely upset, but pretty much everyone was pretty reasonable about the whole thing.
But I think that sometimes there really is a dark side to customer engagement. While it’s easy to talk about how great it is to engage with the community, such engagement always comes at a human cost. Because ultimately one of the major features of the producer/consumer relationship is the power struggle that goes on between the two sides of the equation. The producers have generally free rein as to what they want to produce, but are dependent on the consumer to fork over their money for it. The consumers are free to spend their money however they like, but once they’ve bought into a particular product, they are dependent on the producer to give them what they want. Any relationship like this is bound to produce its fair share of unhappiness and anger at times for both parties. The problem is, where does that anger or unhappiness go?
As producers, we’re pretty much prohibited from taking out our anger or unhappiness on the consumer. Oh, sure, it happens, sometimes in a subtle or passive-aggressive way, but generally producers who treat their customers with disrespect like that are going to have a hard time finding customers. On the other hand, the consumer is pretty much free to vent their displeasure at the producer however they see fit because they know, generally, that the producer cannot return fire. This means that consumers are often free to treat producers (who are, after all, still human beings) with all manner of disrespect and contempt, safe in the knowledge that they will never be called on their behavior. Rare is the time when a producer is in the position to simply write off a customer due to their attitude (although, of course, there are limits).
So this is where being customer-facing (as you could call us Microsoft bloggers and newsgroup people and such) can turn nasty. There have definitely been customers who were just plain unpleasant to deal with – mean, nasty, totally unreasonable and completely without the basic respect that one should afford another simply on the basis of their shared humanity. I don’t mind admitting that they have caused more than a few episodes of anguish on my part, made worse by the fact that I was totally unable (and, I might add, personally unwilling) to express how I really felt about them. I doubt that they thought that I particularly liked them, but I doubt that they could know exactly what I was feeling as I was interacting with them.
Thankfully, though, those experiences have proven to be the exception rather than the rule. By and large our customers – even though who vehemently disagree with me on some issue or another – have been a pleasure to deal with. It’s never fun dealing with someone who’s upset or angry with some action that you or your company took, but as long as the conversation is held within the context of basic human respect for each other, it generally turns out to be nothing but a positive (if sometimes a difficult) experience. As for the jerks out there, well, what can you do? To use some pseduo-Latin (and hoping my high school Latin teacher never sees this!): Illegitimus non carborundum.