It was late August and I was working at a pizza stand at an amusement park. The temperature was almost 100 degrees and the line for food was so long I couldn’t see the end of it from my place at the register. It was already a difficult day: We were dealing with a long line of cranky parents who had waited for 20 minutes in the blistering heat to pay $4 for a slice of pizza, while their kids complained and the same four polka songs played over and over on the park’s speaker system. It enough to make animals out of men.
Then something went wrong back in the kitchen and the food stopped coming. After a few minutes of apologizing, the crowd started to mumble, and then shout and then they began to chant. Then someone at the back of the line threw a rock at my head and all was lost. The employees fled the store through the back door and park security was called in to clear the rioting guests off the patio.
When it was over, I told my manager we needed to do something. Get a backup oven. Put a canopy up to shade the line. Turn off the polka. Anything to keep people happy and calm. But my boss told me those things weren’t necessary. It had been a bad day, but tomorrow would be better. We just needed to keep doing what we were doing.
She hadn’t been on the line that day. She’d been out back smoking when someone threw a rock at me. Of course she didn’t understand.
I realized two things that day:
- Everyone should have to work in customer service for a least a few months. It builds empathy. I guarantee you the person who tried to stone me for pepperoni had never stood behind a cash register.
- You can’t understand what your business needs unless you understand your customers. And the farther you are from the front lines, the harder that gets.
If my boss in 1998 had wanted to know what that pizza shack needed to avoid full-scale guerrilla warfare, she would have had to lay off the cigarettes, come spend some time on the front line and maybe dodge a rock or two herself. And for some businesses, that might still be the way to go. But companies with a robust social media presence have another option.
A lot has been written about the benefits of using a hub-and-spoke or dandelion social media model to make social a part of every aspect of the organization. Most people focus on the little benefits: it makes the company more human, it improves customer service, it helps employees collaborate more, etc. But the best reason to have everyone in your organization spend at least a little bit of time involved in the company’s social media efforts is that it puts everyone on the front line.
Everyone needs to be exposed to the unruly element that is your customers. Your engineers, your sales people, your HR team, your managers and even your CEO need live fire experience. And social media is the easiest way to get it. Your CEO can sit behind a monitor and watch the questions and comments roll in without having to worry about how their observation is affecting what people are saying. No one pulls any punches — but no one can throw any rocks either. It’s a window into what people are asking for, confused by, complaining about, praising and condemning. It’s free and it’s easier than going on Undercover Boss.
Once you understand your customers, in all of their complexity, you can begin to see what you organization really needs to thrive.
Or you could sit back, have a smoke and wait for the riot.
Image Credit: hidesy, via iStock Photo