� Web Schmeb: A Kinder, Gentler Nastygram �

Web Schmeb

  A Kinder, Gentler Nastygram

By Stevi Deter

Much has been said about the level of viciousness on the net. We flame each other ruthlessly on Usenet. We send nastygrams to perpetrators of spam. The immediate and accepted response to anything we determine to be idiocy is supposed to be an angry missive. If you manage to work in some wit, you’re ready for talk.bizarre.

How often do we stop to think about how appropriate this approach is? If we apply the golden rule, are we all saying that we want to receive this kind of treatment in return? Without straying too far into the psychological, are we all detached enough from our net personas that we are not only able to dish it out, but also take it?

Recently I’ve had the chance to see that I, for one, don’t like to reap what I sow. I was webmaster for a week at my company. That included the job of reading all the email to the webmaster, answering what I could and forwarding the mail that should have been sent to the support or sales departments.

I was taken aback by how many of those who wrote the webmaster were just plain uncivil. Profanity, snide comments, threats - they were all there.

Now, I recognize that the time we’re most likely to write the webmaster is when something has bothered us. We couldn’t find the information we were looking for. A link was broken. The search engine wasn’t working. I am as guilty of anyone of phrasing my anger in strident tones. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve told webmasters that their site had lost my business for their company and they were obviously overpaid.

In all that time, only one has written me back in an equally nasty tone. My response was to consider learning who his manager was, and forwarding the message, complaining that I’d been treated horribly by this representative of their company.

Then I realized how unfair I was being. Why do I have the right to be rude, but my correspondent does not? This seems to be widespread in our culture. I’ve had several training session in customer service. They’ve all spent a significant time focusing on how to deal with the rude customer. Rude customers are expected, and our job is to figure out how to defuse the situation. We’re taught how to listen to the customer, and try to appease the customer. This is all in the name of retaining the customer.

The thing is, it works. I’ve found I get much better customer service if I start the call, letter, or discussion angry. You’ve wronged me! You’ve produced a horrible product! You must calm me and appease me, no matter how ridiculous my claims are!

In my experience, this approach works much better than just calling up, acting like a rational adult, and calmly explaining my problem. The only exception is when I get the extremely hassled customer service representative who is just so grateful that I’m not yelling at him that he’ll bend over backwards to keep me on the phone. Otherwise, the next call could be another yeller.

We seem to have taken this attitude to an extreme on the net. I see language that almost no one uses during a telephone call. I’ve seen absurd requests. "Your stupid ass file on the ftp site broken. Recompile it and send me the fixed file when it’s ready. You are all such idiots. I hope you go bankrupt." I have to find a polite way to explain that the file is indeed perfectly usable, it’s just that the user needs to upgrade his version of Adobe Acrobat Reader, which is, after all, free and available everywhere.

Now this example shows the frustration that arises when the user attacks full out over an issue that he could have corrected himself. The problem is, these attacks create such a feeling of frustration that when the webmaster discovers issues that were legitimately the site’s fault, she could care less. Just quite yelling at me, for heaven’s sake. I’m just the backup webmaster! Mistakes happen! We have several thousand pages that are updated by scores of people, and links will break, the ftp server will be unavailable, and the site may not be organized in the way that best suits you. Deal!

Which, of course, is not the best customer service attitude.

What I would suggest is a return to civility. If you find a problem with a site, by all means, report it. Most people have no idea how much work it takes to maintain a huge website, and all the assistance you can give the webmaster is truly appreciated.

When you report the error, however, report it in the same way you would if you were talking to someone you want to do something for you. You don’t have to kowtow, but you could use a polite tone. Write a business letter, not a flame. The webmaster didn’t intend to ruin your day. The webmaster probably had to throw up a correction to the page, answer some steaming hot complaint letters, fix whatever issues they brought up, and then attend a four hour planning meeting. The webmaster is a human being who is probably overworked and doing a job that could keep at least two more people occupied full time.

The net seems to be the incarnation of Hobbes' view of the world: life is nasty, brutish, and the hub will crash right when you need to find something. Perhaps we should inject a little idealism into our interactions. Let’s move towards a little more Rousseau. Let’s establish a social contract, which includes the idea that if you ask nicely, you shall receive, and if you flame, don’t complain when there’s carbon on your dinner.

Be excellent to one another. I’ll thank you for it the next time I have to be webmaster.

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