When the technologists at Dell TechCenter first signed up for Twitter, they chose to communicate as a team under the online community's brand. But then they had second thoughts. Their enterprise IT customers weren't interacting with an entity; they were speaking to individuals who helped them solve thorny problems. Why relegate these trusted relationships to anonymity?
The engineers changed course and began tweeting under their own identities, writing not only about technology but also their passions for poker and the Houston Astros. Followers loved it. Today, visitors to Dell headquarters routinely ask to meet with the celebrities they know as @SANPenguin and @DellServerGeek. And Dell attrib-utes millions in annual sales to the relationships they've developed.
Traditionalists may cringe at the thought of permitting this kind of employee freedom. After all, IBM used to dress its field reps in identical blue suits so that changes in personnel would be less apparent to customers. But in the new culture of Internet-enabled openness, a brand is defined by the people who represent it. Not only does Dell permit its employees to mix business and personal comments online, “We encourage it,” says Manish Mehta, VP-social media and community.
In her forthcoming book, “Open Leadership” (Jossey-Bass, expected in May 2010), Charlene Li asserts that trust is the new currency of business and that leaders must learn to tolerate diversity in order to reap the rewards of customer loyalty. This principle is reinforced by social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn, which prohibit anonymity by design. Li cites Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers' practice of challenging prospective employees to talk about their failures. Those who won't admit to any, “immediately lose credibility with me,” he says.
Does this mean that we should permit employees to brag online about weekend drinking binges or spew hate rhetoric in forums? Absolutely not. HR managers need to revisit their rule books to reinforce the need for people to reflect company values in their online interactions. But open leaders are learning that a little humility goes a long way.
Last month, wireless Internet provider Boingo Wireless suffered a backlash when it inadvertently e-mailed customers a mass cancellation notice. Staffers took to Twitter within minutes to reassure angry account-holders that the message was a mistake. “You could literally see the tide change from "Why the hell are you spamming me?' to "We all make mistakes,' ” said Corporate Communications Director Christian Gunning.
Does openness have a price? Of course. Mistakes happen, but it turns out that we're remarkably tolerant of them when intentions are good. Toyota has learned the hard way this year that stonewalling and denial are no longer effective when customers can talk freely to each other. Leadership now means empowering people to make smart decisions while accepting the consequences of human frailty. M