We suck! We suck!

“I like companies and products that have the guts to say ‘we suck’ or something close to it,” writes Steve Rubel, the blogger for the big PR firm Edelman. “Now that conversation is king it’s critical that companies begin to have these honest discussions with their customers and do it out in the open.”

Do companies actually pay for this kind of knuckleheaded advice? Who exactly crowned “conversation” king? A handful of self-absorbed bloggers banging away at their little keyboards? Conversation isn’t king. Good products and services at fair prices are king – always were, always will be. Which would you rather do business with – a company that delivers great goods but has no interest in buttonholing you into some pathetic excuse for “a conversation,” or a company that sells you crap but is great at conversing? Well, duh.

The last we thing we need is companies getting in touch publicly with their inner suckiness. Just give me something I want to buy and shut the hell up. I have enough friends.

10 thoughts on “We suck! We suck!

  1. Scott Karp

    Nick, Steve did say at the end of his post:

    If Yahoo is going to turn me around – and others as well – they are going to have to not only listen to what the community is saying but also apply it…and fast. Actions speak louder than words.

    Assuming that a company prioritizes “acting” to make products and services better, is there no value in letting your customers know that you understand what needs to be improved and are actively working to do it? Or do you think it’s better to just keep your mouth shut while you hurry up and fix problems with your product? In the latter case, assuming it takes some time to make improvements, you customers may be under the impression that you’re clueless about product shortcomings and/or you don’t care.

  2. Sid Steward

    I think there’s an unspoken trick to this technique: act like your greatest critic in order to control the ‘you suck’ conversation. Then direct the coversation to your benefit.

    The WSJ had an article touching on this. The author suggested that Phillip Morris learned such a lesson from the tobacco dispute. Now that their foods are under attack (obesity in children, as I recall), they are critiquing and regulating themselves — taking control of the ‘you suck’ conversation.

    Sometimes I think I’m too cynical, sometimes I’m amazed at my naivety.

  3. Nick Wilson

    Actually, what we need is a little bit of honesty, a little bit of what the self absorbed PR bloggers are flogging but with a huge dollop of common sense thrown in

    Glad to see im not the only one feeling a little nauseated by the rah rah blogs PR crowd — really, I find a lot of what i readon

    this to be dreadfully inauthentic.

    bleat bleat bleat….

  4. Nick Carr

    Scott, This is (obviously) one of those difficult challenges that managers have always had to confront (hopefully not too often). I think the response is entirely situational. When you have to deliver bad news to customers, you do it in an honest, intelligent fashion. That was true a hundred years ago, it’s true today, it’ll be true a hundred years from now. What you don’t want to do is buy into some silly suggestion that “conversation is king” and rush into the market yelling “we suck.”

    Sid, that’s entirely sensible. If Edelman was smart, they’d hire you.

    Nick, I, too, am a huge believer in common sense, the one business resource that’s always in short supply.

  5. Graham Hill


    As is often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

    There is little point in attempting to start a conversation with customers unless your products, services & experiences deliver what they promise on the tin. And probably then some too. But for the few companies who can do that consistently, there is certainly value to be had in starting a conversation with select customers, in particular, with lead customers to help drive innovation, and with advocates to help drive marketing and sales. But this should be an adult to adult conversation, not a parent to child conversation like most marketing, or a child to parent one like Steve Rubel seems to suggest.

    As the old saw goes, “talk is cheap”.

  6. Mathew Ingram

    Holy cow, Nick — did your dog die recently, or your girlfriend dump you or something? You have been quite the nattering nabob of negativity lately. First it’s a triumvirate of Wikipedia-bashing, and now you’re taking on Steve Rubel (there’s only one “l” in the name by the way). Yes, the “conversation” thing can get a little rah, rah even for me — but you yourself seem to agree that companies should admit when they have screwed up and try to fix it. That’s all Steve is saying, just in a different way. I think you need to go to your happy place.

  7. Marc

    Glad to hear your marriage continues and your dog is well ;^)

    I’ve actually been enjoying your recent posts quite a lot Nick. Keep calling it like you see it. Steve’s a big boy, has a thick skin, and a sense of humor too. He’ll be fine.

    More to the point – I think you’re spot on in taking this position. Blogs are great but communicating with your customers with authenticity does not require a blog. Good companies figured out how to do this long before the “device du jour” came along.

    In my experience, a customer would prefer to hear a mea culpa directly from me and my company directed specifically, if not personally, to them. I don’t buy the notion that self-flagellation in public somehow connotes greater sincerity. If you did something wrong and admit it forthrightly to the people affected, that generally eliminates the need to air your laundry in public.

    If it doesn’t, by all means step up publicly and acknowledge the situation. The Wall St. Journal and New York Times have made millions of dollars running public apology ads. Bausch & Lomb’s latest TV and print campaign is a classic example of using MSM to admit a mistake and explain what’s being done to rectify it.

    Of course, not every company can afford to go that route. A blog or statement on your company web site is a cheaper way to do essentially the same thing when it’s necessary.

  8. Nilofer

    There seems to be one point of view still missing from the dialogue.

    Companies (and their advertising / pr / blah blah firms) need to get their message to the user. Some 70% of internet marketing is now lost to the user because they’ve learned to train themselves to focus on ‘heat spots’ that don’t include the side banner or top bar. What that means is that companies want to get included into content related discussions. Hence the need for what is often called ‘influencer marketing’ initiatives.

    Find advocates, enable them (with a good product) and the community can start to talk amongst themselves.

    I talk more about this need to talk with customers at this blog entry. (www.winmarkets.com)


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