JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

L.L.Bean is a company whose products I trust. I expect them to be of high quality, and, so far, the products have met my expectations. The fellow who installed our new Dish Network system did such a great job that I left a message with customer support because I was so pleased.

I’m certain each of you have companies and brands you feel strongly about, almost as if they were members of the family. At the same time, I’m sure you know of companies and brands that you have come to dislike. You don’t trust them to deliver the products or services at the quality you expect.

In their recent book, The Human Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies (Jossey-Bass, 2013), Chris Malone and Susan Fiske suggest that the judgments we make about companies and products are very much like the judgments we make about people. If a company behaves well toward us, delivers the products we expect, provides the service we need, and helps us succeed in using the products effectively, we feel good about that company. And, we reward the company and its products with loyalty.

I’ve written before about the Net Promoter Score (NPS) measure of customer loyalty. An NPS survey asks customers how likely they are to recommend a product to others. A positive NPS might be the result of the product’s functionality, speed, or user interface. It might result from superior customer service, and it might result from superior information.

Take the case of my Dish Network system. The installer was professional and seemed genuinely concerned about our ability to use the system. He carefully explained each of the functions and how the pieces of the system worked together.

However, a few weeks later, the new speaker stopped working. I could change the volume using the television controller but could no longer control the volume with our Dish Network controller. Of course, like an experienced information developer, I checked the manuals, three of them, one for the speaker, one for the television, and one for the network. Nothing helped. My favorable view of the company was being eroded.

Finally, I called customer service. The technician asked me to unplug the power to the speaker, wait 30 seconds, and plug it in again. Voila, it worked. Unfortunately, the tidbit that the service tech knew about had never made it into the manual(s). My husband, who is a lot less tolerant of bad instructions than I am, now considers the manuals to be worthless.

Certainly, everyone reading this article has many, many similar stories of documentation that fails to help the customer. Much of the information may be useful and complete, but those tips and tricks that come from experienced technicians, and experienced users, never seem to make it into the document.

Malone, in an interview with Quality Digest (, suggests that we use two criteria to judge people. Are they warm and are they competent? Warmth means that they are honest, trustworthy, kind, or friendly. Competence means that they seem capable, intelligent, and skilled.

His research shows that we judge companies and brands in the same way. These perceptions of warmth and competence are more important than features or benefits. Although we certainly view companies in terms of what we buy, we also expect them to honor our relationships with them.

Malone points out that we dislike companies when we believe they are taking advantage of us. When the insurance company denies a claim and does its best to ignore all entreaties, we look for another company that might treat us better. When a high-tech company sells us products that are poorly designed and difficult to use, we look for alternatives. When we try to find information in manuals or on web sites that we need to be successful in using a product, we expect to be treated with respect. If the information is non-existent or indecipherable, we are irked. Our trust has been violated.

People who are irked at a company, feel badly treated, and have their trust violated are likely today to get revenge through social media. They post a negative review or provide a YouTube video that demonstrates the product failure. If the company doesn’t respond quickly and effectively, the negative comments might just go viral.

Unfortunately, some companies, rather than acting responsibly, decide to fight back in ways that are even more reprehensible.

A recent news story related the case of a customer who never received a product they had ordered and paid for. They posted a negative comment on the company’s social media site. The company then fined them $3,500 for posting a negative comment. Apparently, their Terms of Use included a cause stating that the customer is not permitted to post negative comments about the company. According to the attorney interviewed, the Terms of Use are most likely in violation of the First Amendment (free speech).

However, the publicity generated by this action should be the company’s worst nightmare come true. Their name, identity, and bad behavior is on the evening news. Find the story at

What does the Human Brand study imply for information developers? Often we are victims of problems that make it very difficult to deliver the best, well-tested information to our customers. These problems often include

  • Products that are unavailable for testing by the writers
  • Developers who have no time to review content
  • Support technicians who are unavailable to the writers
  • Departments that are severely understaffed
  • Information that has to be completed before the products are ready
  • Web site content that is inaccessible to most customers

If any or all of these problems affect your organization, you need to make a business case for change. If your company hopes to grow and remain profitable, it is important that the decision-makers become more aware of how the company is perceived by the customers.

If customers find information impenetrable and difficult to find, they are unlikely to view the company as warm and competent. If a company’s business practices make them appear oblivious to the customers’ needs for information, then those business practices need to change.

Malone states that companies need to find a balance that better serves its customers, employees, and other stakeholders. He argues that the focus on short-term shareholder returns drives customers away. When customers perceive a company as cold and incompetent, they leave.

Find ways to learn how your customers perceive the information you develop. Learn how effective your organization is at getting the right information into the customers’ hands. If the perceptions are negative, find ways to change. You will benefit, but so also will your company.