Have you heard the tale about how one blogger-angry at Maytag for its terrible customer service-attracted 2,906 comments on her blog at dooce.com and reached one million others with her tweets? You can bet that the frustration she had with her Kenmore washer was nothing compared to the headaches her rants caused the parent company. Did Maytag learn from its mistakes? According to Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler, officers at Forrester Research and authors of Empowered (Harvard Business Review Press, September 14, 2010), they did: The company now responds to tweets that its customers post online. But they would have caused themselves less grief and negative publicity if they had a strategy in place to empower their employees to reach out to their customers online. According to Bernoff and Schadler, "To succeed with empowered customers, you must empower your employees to solve customer problems.
The authors use Best Buy as an example of a company that understands that its customers use of social technology gives them unprecedented clout with other consumers. Here's what happened at Best Buy. The company upset one of its customers who bought an iPhone and a protection plan at one of its stores when they offered him a BlackBerry as a loaner. The customer believed his protection plan entitled him to a substitute iPhone but the manager at the local store wouldn't give him one. So this unhappy customer turned to Twitter. What makes this story different from the Maytag story is Best Buy has people monitoring tweets that mention words like bestbuy and geeksquad. As a result, this customer got a same-day response from Best Buy's Chief Marketing Officer, followed by a member of Best Buy's Twitter Help Force offering to make sure that he got his iPhone loaner (he got it the next day, which happened to be a Sunday).
What's the point of stories like these? You can turn unhappy customers into loyal customers if you empower your employees to develop customer solutions using the same technologies that your empowered customers are using. Bernoff and Schadler call employees who do this HEROes, or highly empowered and resourceful operatives.
Doing this, however, is not easy. According to Bernoff and Schadler the technology projects created by HEROes are grassroots solutions, not top-down initiatives, and require a "transformation in the way companies operate." HERO projects are usually based on improving the flow of information so they involve collaboration between managers, IT and HEROes. And they also require that the reputation that many IT departments have for saying "no" too often has to change.
So what is IT's role in this era of empowerment? According to the authors, in the past IT departments had two jobs. "The first was to build and support big technology projects...The second was to make sure any systems that these workers used were safe and that they kept data secure and functioned properly." These responsibilities are threatened by HEROes, who are do-it-yourselfers and inclined to use technologies that are often not sanctioned by IT.
The new role for IT, suggested by the authors, is "key advisor to HEROes and their managers." This involves helping HEROes pick the right technologies and manage the risk from these technologies; scaling up HERO solutions that work; and creating corporate systems that improve employee innovation and collaboration. This also means not blocking employee access to social networking sites. In one Forrester survey they found that most information workers had sites blocked by their employers: 68 percent in the United State, 69 percent in Canada, and 79 percent in the United Kingdom. The authors say, "It's awfully hard to develop projects around tools like social networks video, and mobile devices if you can't even use them at work!"
It's time to realize, they say, that you can't protect things any more "by locking down the network and password-protecting the databases." And they add, "While IT was busy securing the network perimeter to keep secrets inside and intruders outside, the perimeter moved. It moved to wherever an employee is trying to work." The new job of information security, they say, is two-fold:
- Train and educate information workers about how to keep themselves safe.
- Help HEROes assess, manage, and mitigate risks associated with their projects. IT is not responsible for risk. IT must help workers improve the security of what they do.
So if you are ready to tackle a new way to empower the HEROes in your organization, here's the IT pledge the Empowered authors suggest making:
- I will focus more on customer-facing opportunities in addition to systems, risks and operations.
- I will respect requests for new technology support and find ways to say, "Yes, and" rather than automatically saying, "No."
- I will explain the reasons for locking down new technologies and immediately begin looking for ways to unlock them. I will reexamine decisions to lock down new technologies at least once a year.
- I will focus on technology innovation as a core skill so I can counsel HEROes whey they come with technology ideas.
- I will question the default assumption that people using do-it-yourself technology are creating risks or wasting time.
- As new HERO projects get off the ground, I will seek ways to help HEROes and their managers scale them up successfully and keep them safe.
- I will focus on training people about risks at least as much as on implementing lock-down technology solutions.
- I will help with the development of corporate systems to promote innovation and collaboration.
If you read this blog and concluded that dealing with empowerment from customers and employees sounds like an awful lot of trouble-think again about what it means if you don't do anything about it. According to Empowered's authors empowered consumers are responsible for half a trillion impressions in social online environments in the U.S. each year. According to Nielsen Online, advertisers delivered 1.974 trillion online ad impressions in the twelve months ending September 2009. "People receive roughly one-forth as many impressions from each other as they do from online advertisers," the authors say. "Which ones do you think they pay attention to?"
Clearly, many corporate titans are getting this message. In a letter to shareholders, along with the annual report, Rupert Murdoch, News Corp.'s CEO, said, "Companies that do not innovate will struggle to survive. They will be digitally disoriented, quickly losing touch with their customers, who will be more technologically literate than those who seek to provide them with services and products." Welcome to the new rules of doing business in the digital age.