from pickett&associates … exploring PR, social media and entrepreneurship

Machiavelli Lives … in Customer Service and Social Media September 10, 2010

Filed under: Customer Service,Social Media — pickettwrites @ 1:27 pm

Back in the delightful days of undergrad studies at Butler University, I was among the throngs of Liberal Arts majors partaking of a Philosophy class taught by John Beversluis. According to Google, he retired about six years ago and has written a couple of books, but I recall his class fondly as he guided us through Plato, Socrates and Machiavelli, and particularly the “Good Prince/Bad Prince” discussions.

For the very, very revised version (and for those who were in those math and science classes and skipped this sort of mental gymnastics), a prince is merely “perceived” as good or bad by his subjects and is a matter of strategic calculation. For instance, according to our friends at Wikipedia: If a prince is overly generous to his subjects, Machiavelli asserts he will lose appreciation and will only cause greed for more. Additionally, being overly generous is not economical, because eventually all resources will be exhausted. This results in higher taxes and will bring grief upon the prince. Then, if he decides to discontinue or limit his generosity, he will be labeled as a miser. Thus, Machiavelli summarizes that guarding against the people’s hatred is more important than building up a reputation for generosity. A wise prince should be willing to be more reputed a miser than be hated for trying to be too generous. 

So, I was thinking about Machiavelli today as I reflected on two customer services experiences I had in the last 24 hours.

The first occurred yesterday at my local library when I stopped by to pick up my library card that I had ordered on-line. Particularly excited to download some audiobooks onto my iPod, I approached the front desk and was directed around the corner (without much of a smile, which surprised me.) When I got to the “library card” desk, the t-shirted young man said in a monotone, “I need a picture ID and a piece of mail received within a month with your name and address.” Shoot. Forgot that part; I went out to the car, grabbed my recently received car registration, and took it back in to validate that indeed, I wasn’t trying to scam the library. When he finally found the correct date, and asked whether I wanted a wallet or key card, he said, “It looks like you already have a card.” Well, probably, but not on the new system that allows for downloading, etc. And then, here’s the kicker. Again, no smile, no small talk, “It looks like you have a fine.” How much? “63 cents.” REALLY? From when? “2003.” I supposed I’m lucky it’s not one of those $4,000 fines after seven years of compounding. Still no smile. The kid just took my dollar, gave me change, my new card and away I went. This definitely wasn’t the warm and fuzzy feeling I used to get back in the days of visiting the old library on Main Street … okay, when I was 11. And why hadn’t I heard a peep from the library in seven years? And why was this kid so … NOT friendly? That was my perception.

And then this morning, I received an email from one of my favorite online newsletters, EcoStiletto. Okay, on name alone, I love it. They describe themselves this way: EcoStiletto dishes out daily eco-friendly fashion, beauty, lifestyle and celebrity advice that can help shrink your carbon footprint from a ginormous boot into an oh-so-slender stiletto. This morning’s email touted their new ShopEco store, so I clicked through and found a couple of items that “fit the bill” (total: under $30) encouraged by a discount for a first time shopper as well as free shipping. They use “Open Sky” for their shopping cart which was very efficient, except that I didn’t get my shipping discount. When I received their confirmation, I clicked the “help” email address and inquired. And here is the reply I received WITHIN 10 MINUTES:  Hi Pat, The “THISWEEKFREE” you referenced is a coupon you’d have to enter before you checked out on OpenSky. However, I applied the shipping discount for you, so all should be well. If you need anything else, please don’t hesitate to ask! Best regards, Jason

And my perception? AWESOME customer service, with a smile. And I’m sharing my experience because I PERCEIVE this is so.

Back to Machiavelli. My perception of the Library dude: bad prince. My perception of Jason, my knight in shining armor at EcoStiletto: Good prince. For all I know, Jason is providing customer service from home because he’s wearing a device that prevents him from leaving the house  as a result of some awful thing he’s done. And perhaps the “bad prince” of the library was zapped from donating more than his share of blood to a child or searching all night for a missing kitten.

And these sorts of perceptions make up the bulk of social media, particularly in terms of customer service chat. Sure, the social media gurus encourage transparency and authenticity, because the public will eventually ferret out the truth, but at what stage of the game? When do we figure out that the good prince is really a fraud … and the much chastised bad prince is really misunderstood?

I know. It’s a lot to read, but thought it was worth some words today. Perhaps the next time we tend to “knee-jerk react” to something and blurt it out there in cyberspace, we’ll think about our friend Machiavelli and weigh the consequences a bit.

A lot to leave you with on a Friday … maybe you’ll go dig that old philosophy book out of the attic and do a little “refresher course” with a more mature perspective. Nonetheless, good weekend, everyone!