Are you in danger of being too polite online?

Are you in danger of being too polite online? 1

The UK company that provides a quarter of the population – including me – with drinking water is in trouble. “Thames Water” is on the verge of collapse after shareholders refused to provide extra cash to the debt-ridden firm. There is a real chance that the Government will have to step in and take over the company.

It won’t be the first time this kind of thing has happened. NatWest Bank collapsed 15 years ago and had to be bailed out by the taxpayer. Plus, the state now runs six out of 15 rail franchises in the UK.

One common factor in all these issues is what happens on social media. Indeed, when NatWest was thriving before the financial crash of 2008, I ran a training course for them at their parent company, Royal Bank of Scotland. The course was about how to get the most out of Twitter—or at least I thought it was.

During the course, when I pointed out the need for speed of response, one delegate told me that the internal approval system for any public comment took 16 days. I told him 16 minutes was too long on social media. Another delegate also said that one of the reasons they wanted to hear from me was to advise their staff that they should NOT use social media at all. In effect, they wanted to ban it. I did my usual “the cat is out of the bag” speech and told them they had to adapt to the new world, not try and turn the clock back. To help them understand the situation, I did a quick search of comments about the bank. Spanning a period of six months, I found over 6,000 negative Tweets about the bank – none of which had received any reply. I like to think my training course led the bank to become interactive online. Indeed, the bank is now highly interactive online, engaging with people individually. A lot has clearly changed.

However, stroll over to Thames Water’s Twitter page, and what you find is somewhat different. Templated answers abound. Many of them simply say to people, “Please contact us by direct message instead”.  It doesn’t smack of a company that is engaging with people. The train companies also didn’t appear to make the most of social media. Before the Government took over many rail companies, Twitter was awash with complaints about the firm. Indeed, in one year alone, 400,000 Tweets were moaning about the rail service. That’s almost one a minute, 24/7.

Coping with the negativity is challenging, of course. Firms like Thames Water want to take it “offline,” and rail companies seem to have had too many to deal with. So, they resort to “bots” to help them answer. This appears to make sense. It shows people you are not ignoring them, even if you are drowning in social media activity. You can be polite with a “thank you” and offer them a helpful link. It makes so much sense.

Except it doesn’t.

New research from New York shows that it is a much more complex picture. Constantly saying “thank you” to be polite can be seen as patronising. Indeed, think how annoyed you get having sent an email to a group of people when every one of them “replies to all” with a single line saying “thank you”. Everybody thinks, “Oh, stop, this is so annoying”. The attempt at politeness has the opposite effect. Now multiply that with it happening dozens of times on social media accounts or review websites full of “thank you” messages.

Another issue the researchers discovered is when someone reviews products or services and explains the good and the bad. Then, the company comes along to put their side of the argument. Readers perceive this as opportunistic behaviour, trying to unnecessarily promote the good parts of the business when the reviewer has already done that. In short, people think this is much like unwanted advertising—it’s viewed as spam.

Let’s think about this if it were a real-world conversation. A customer walks up to you and tells you what they love about your product and then says something negative. What do you do? I’m guessing you won’t repeat back the good stuff to them, emphasising how wonderful you are. Instead, you’ll take on the negative, explain how you’ll deal with it and try to turn it into a positive. You will not use this as an opportunity to boast about your product and say how marvellous it is and how much you agree with the customer’s view. Yet, to appear polite, this happens on social media and review sites – especially if you leave it in the hands of a bot.

The research points to the fact that people expect a normal, human conversation, even though it is through the medium of a social network. Trying to be polite by giving trite answers or “bigging up” the reviewer is perceived as negative behaviour. This means that even though a bot can help you practically, it does not assist you in your bid to improve relationships with customers. It could make things worse.

Thames Water and the rail companies have a significant managerial problem in dealing with the volume of social media and review activity they face. However, from a reputational and marketing perspective, this research suggests that much of the activity needs a nuanced, human response. Using software to help you seem polite online could work against you. So too could all those “thank you” messages. Hence, there is no need to thank me for this article.

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