Five years ago I read a book that changed my life:  Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute, an organization dedicated to helping people, organizations, and communities solve problems created by self-deception. It had such a powerful impact on the way I see myself and others that I have since purchased more than ten copies for employees and friends, and I recently gave it my third rereading. 

Although the book is about personal and organizational improvement and not marketing, a recent experience with my mobile provider made me appreciate how the lessons in “Leadership and Self-Deception” apply to social media.  One of the insights in this book is that behaviors are not as important as who we are. Organizations and people can do the same set of behaviors and get disparate outcomes; the difference isn’t how we do what we do, but who we are as we do it. Nowhere is this more true than in social media.

One way of being is to recognize people as people and the other is to see people as obstacles and objects. The first way of being encourages us to connect with people and do right by them, and the latter causes us to treat people as tasks that must be disposed of as efficiently as possible.  Because people primarily respond not to what we do but to how we’re being, the difference in these two approaches is the difference between an antagonistic relationship seeded with distrust and a collaborative relationship of mutual benefit.  Which type of relationship does your brand want with its customers?

The idea that who we are is more important than what we do resonates strongly in the era of social media.  Lots of brands have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, but are all brands seeing equal results?  Some are going through the motions while others earn trust, affinity, and advocacy.  What determines how a brand’s actions create or destroy rapport isn’t just what it does—there is no magic social media “to do” checklist—but who the brand is and what it stands for.  Consumers are more adept than ever at intuiting which brands and companies care about them and which care about selling stuff. 

A personal experience caused me to consider the stark disparity between the two ways of being and how brands are built in social media not by what they do but who they are.  Twice in the last two years I had problems with smartphones, and each time I tweeted about my issues and frustrations.  My experiences with my mobile provider were so vastly different that it is hard to believe I was dealing with the same company. 

Eighteen months ago I tweeted to no one in particular that my relatively new smartphone was functioning slowly.  My mobile provider was listening and reached out to me on Twitter.  They asked where they could reach me, and then tech support proactively called to walk me through new phone settings and fix the problems. My concerns were resolved within hours without me having to wait on hold, and as a result, I tweeted how thrilled I was at the service I received.

Last month I tweeted to the same mobile provider that the battery of my six-month-old smartphone, which used to last round the clock, was no longer making it even 10 hours.  I received no answer, so I tweeted twice more and still the brand was mute.  Turns out the brand cannot be troubled to respond via their primary account, so I tweeted their service account and received a reply suggesting I turn off my phone’s radio to preserve the battery. I expressed my dissatisfaction with this reply, so they sent me into a store where I waited for 35 minutes because they were short-staffed.  I walked out of the store with the same problem I had when I walked in, so I returned to Twitter and messaged that I was upset.  The company responded via Direct Message with an email address, but my first email message didn’t get a response.  I tried again, and the answer I finally received was to ask if I’d yet checked with RIM, the manufacturer of the phone. After weeks, many tweets, a trip to a store, and two email messages, I was angry and frustrated, so I gave up and paid for a BlackBerry app that extends battery life.

In both cases the brand listened and responded; in both cases I entered their system as a customer with a complaint; and in both cases I received customer support.  Identical sets of behaviors, but they were performed in two extraordinarily different ways.  In the first instance, the brand demonstrated they cared for me as a customer, while in the second I was “handled.”  Eighteen months ago I felt they wanted to help me and retain my business, and the second time I sensed they just wanted me to go away.  And when it comes time to renew my contract, that is exactly what I may do; my mobile provider turned me from an advocate into an unhappy customer.

One set of behaviors but two ways of being and two very different outcomes.  In social media, companies cannot hide whether they see customers as people or as objects.  If it is in a company’s DNA to view customers as objects, there is little social media will do to help (and may in fact hurt) their brands. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and communities cannot brighten the cold, dark shell of an uncaring company.   But for those companies who recognize their customers as living, breathing people with needs, desires, and emotions, social media will be a powerful tool for building lasting, valuable relationships.