In the past two weeks, I’ve been asked a version of the same question about four times. The questions came from decision-makers at three companies/brands and one advertising agency. The question was generally this one:

Why on Earth would we allow our employees to openly represent us online?

Yes, all you social media purists out there, there are still non-Kool-aid drinkers amongst us. In fact, 90 percent of the world is still old school about marketing and communications. Keep on Kumbaya-ing with your “l love your blog” crowd. The rest of us will do the hard work.

While the answer to that question varies by client, environment and more, I generally answer it with, “If you are afraid of what your employees will say about you online, then your problem is not your employees, it’s you. Hire smarter.” There are nuances, though. Employees don’t have to be “official” spokespeople and so on. But, generally speaking, people with the “can’t do that” attitude are afraid of their hires, not the principal.

Java Brewing BaristasTo give you an example of what empowering your employees might look like, I need only show you this chalk board from Java Brewing Company in downtown Louisville. Jamie, Ashley, Suemi, Arielle and Laura work for the company. As patrons enter, they are introduced to their baristas.

If you ask any of them a hard question, they’ll answer, “Let me check with my manager.” If you complain about the quality of your coffee, they apologize and give you a new cup or extend an offer for you to talk to the manager. If you ask them something they don’t know, they even say, “I don’t know.”

My guess is that if they are asked those same questions on Facebook, they’ll say the same things.

Jamie, Ashley, Suemi, Arielle and Laura aren’t just baristas. They are community managers. Just without computers.

More importantly, though, Java Brewing Company proactively introduces them to you, tells you a few things they like and what their favorite drink is. This gives you suggestions on what to order, but also comfortable topics to use in conversation with the baristas as you get to know them.

I want to ask Jamie how she got to Louisville from Spartanburg, S.C., and how she likes being a Duke fan in a state that appreciates Duke as much as it does Kim Jong Il. It’s an ice-breaker, and entree to further conversation. And immediately makes me think I’m doing business with someone I know, not just some company that takes my money.

This humanizes Java Brewing Company.

So think about how you would react to buying coffee from such a place if you “knew” the staff, had talking points to strike up conversations (Not even about their company, just random, life-fulfilling conversations.) and saw it as more than just a store where you spend money for a cup-a-joe.

Then tell me about your company’s baristas.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.arikhanson.com Arik Hanson

    You nailed it with the hire smarter line. And, I love the line about 'they're community managers–just without computers.” Can I use that if I trademark it to SME? ;)

    It's actually a similar argument to the one that's made by management when it comes to internal social networking, too. “My employees will waste time using these tools.” “My staff may say offensive things online.” “Won't they disclose confidential information?” I've heard all the concerns–I lived it with a former employer. And, it screams the same thing as you highlighted above: Trust.

    Sometimes you gotta start with the basics.

  • http://www.jeffgibbard.com/ JGibbard

    I'm gonna be thinking about that question all day: Why on Earth would we allow our employees to openly represent us online?

    It's a great thing to think about because those of us in social media could easily answer for ourselves because we have no skepticism, we're believers. The hard part is to convey the value of knowing the baristas as people to the skeptical.

    It's interesting because many clients have a hard time seeing the value of doing something that doesn't actively push or promote a product or service, yet ask those some people if they patronize businesses where they “know” people and you'd likely get a resounding yes.

    Great post Jason.

  • http://www.denisbaranov.com Denis

    Jason, thank you for the great point and example! From my experience, brick & mortar businesses are very slow at adopting social marketing strategies because they think that the real-life interaction during transactions is sufficient enough to establish the connection. 3rd-party examples, like yours, make it so much easier to persuade consulting customers at least to try a new approach.

  • http://www.denisbaranov.com Denis

    Jason, thank you for the great point and example! From my experience, brick & mortar businesses are very slow at adopting social marketing strategies because they think that the real-life interaction during transactions is sufficient enough to establish the connection. 3rd-party examples, like yours, make it so much easier to persuade consulting customers at least to try a new approach.

  • http://www.denisbaranov.com Denis

    Jason, thank you for the great point and example! From my experience, brick & mortar businesses are very slow at adopting social marketing strategies because they think that the real-life interaction during transactions is sufficient enough to establish the connection. 3rd-party examples, like yours, make it so much easier to persuade consulting customers at least to try a new approach.

  • http://www.denisbaranov.com Denis

    Jason, thank you for the great point and example! From my experience, brick & mortar businesses are very slow at adopting social marketing strategies because they think that the real-life interaction during transactions is sufficient enough to establish the connection. 3rd-party examples, like yours, make it so much easier to persuade consulting customers at least to try a new approach.

  • http://www.denisbaranov.com Denis

    Jason, thank you for the great point and example! From my experience, brick & mortar businesses are very slow at adopting social marketing strategies because they think that the real-life interaction during transactions is sufficient enough to establish the connection. 3rd-party examples, like yours, make it so much easier to persuade consulting customers at least to try a new approach.

  • http://www.denisbaranov.com Denis

    Jason, thank you for the great point and example! From my experience, brick & mortar businesses are very slow at adopting social marketing strategies because they think that the real-life interaction during transactions is sufficient enough to establish the connection. 3rd-party examples, like yours, make it so much easier to persuade consulting customers at least to try a new approach.

  • http://www.denisbaranov.com Denis

    Jason, thank you for the great point and example! From my experience, brick & mortar businesses are very slow at adopting social marketing strategies because they think that the real-life interaction during transactions is sufficient enough to establish the connection. 3rd-party examples, like yours, make it so much easier to persuade consulting customers at least to try a new approach.

  • http://www.denisbaranov.com Denis

    Jason, thank you for the great point and example! From my experience, brick & mortar businesses are very slow at adopting social marketing strategies because they think that the real-life interaction during transactions is sufficient enough to establish the connection. 3rd-party examples, like yours, make it so much easier to persuade consulting customers at least to try a new approach.

  • jeffespo

    These are great points Jason and I would love to see the answers that she gives you. While I am with you on empowering employees to the fullest, I wonder if it can also hurt. For example, say you are pissed at your employer and you post said gripes on the social web, would the company be wrong to bring that up to the employee?

    It goes hand in hand with the hiring smart people, but at times smart people do dumb things. Its just something that I am wondering if we'll hear more about as more companies add these levels of empowerment.

  • kmskala

    Why allow employees to represent you online? Because with or without your permission, they already are. Formally or informally.

  • http://twitter.com/StartupSidekick Jason Sullivan

    Nice article. Humanizing the company is one of the fundamental benefits that can be leveraged from social network platforms. It is a very big deal, and I haven't seen many companies utilize it yet. Your example with baristas illustrates it out perfectly.

    We all prefer to purchase from people we feel we 'know'. Social media can provide companies with this advantage, so why not use it? Well written article

    Jason
    http://twitter.com/StartupSidekick (follow me on Twitter for fresh entrepreneurial advice)

  • lauraclick

    Love this – especially since you showed what this looked like instead of just telling readers that this it's a good idea to empower employees as a way to humanize your company. Employees have always represented the businesses they work for. However, social media amplifies the reach of an employee and creates a public record of sorts. You're right – the companies that don't want to let their employees do this must be afraid of who they have working for them. A great point and excellent lesson!

  • http://occamsrazr.com Ike Pigott

    I love it, and agree with it.

    But the objection you didn't address is:

    “When my barista spills a latte and burns a customer, twelve people see it. When my barista burns a customer online, Google remembers forever.”

    Then it's a matter of weighing the positives and negatives, but for some industries the negatives are too radioactive to consider.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Why isn't this addressed? All you have to do is explain the amplification to your baristas. It helps them take their job more seriously. We live in a Google cached world. Teach your employees that and you have no worries. It's not on- or off-line is all-line.

      • http://occamsrazr.com Ike Pigott

        I didn't say you *couldn't* address it, just that it was left unasked, and it's a fairly common one. (Well, minus the baristae…)

  • http://www.TheFranchiseKingBlog.com The Franchise King

    Way to go, Jason.

    Just let em do it. it will be ok.

    Right?

    The Franchise King®
    Joel Libava

  • http://nextcommunications.blogspot.com/ Vedo

    Jason, I dig this common sense approach but can also understand Jeff's concern about those smart people being hired doing stupid things. I also this Ike's point of it having a bit larger reach online than a coffee house community. I wonder if that's the balance we have to strike in various sizes of businesses, organizations, etc. In some cases it's a roll of the dice. Kasey has it right, “Why allow employees to represent you online? Because with or without your permission, they already are. Formally or informally.”

    Also laughed at the “…how she likes being a Duke fan in a state that appreciates Duke as much as it does Kim Jong Il.” Funny visual of Kim Jon Il in a Duke uniform.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      My response to your and Jeff's concern is simple: the fear is not different on-line or off-. The stupid things could be telling off a customer, bitching about the manager where customers can hear the comments or wearing a pro-life T-shirt while at work.

      The concept of entrusting your employees happens in every company in off-line encounters with the public in varying ways. Why is it so hard for us to see that on-line works the same way?

      If your policies are written and your employees are made aware of them, on- and off-line matters not. Represent the company well or face the consequences. Period.

      Fair?

      • http://nextcommunications.blogspot.com/ Vedo

        I agree. Wouldn't it be nice if we could just go into HR in-processing and say, “oh and remember, don't be stupid.”

  • http://www.marketinghandy.blogspot.com/ Mike Handy

    I like this idea a lot.. I think it is wise to offer a road map to help them start to engage… I agree it makes no sense to remove your front line employees from the front lines of the digital space. I think everyone should walk around with a @username badge just for kicks.

  • http://lyndit.com LyndiT

    A exciting conversation for big companies. Working at PCC as a teenager we were required to wear name tags, introduce ourselves to new customers and even “gasp!” have our names on a chalkboard when we made juice or coffee for customers. All the retail jobs I had I got to know my customers well and not to sound too full of myself became a reason for some customers to come by and chat. I remembered my customers names, their favorite things to order and even asked about their spouses. Great conversations as well as long lasting memories that I hope big brands start to understand are a strength not a liability.

  • http://twitter.com/michaelow Michael Ow

    It's not just empowering employees that is at work here. Company owners and managers need to realise that they need to create Advocates for their business. We all try very hard to win customers over but have we won our employees over? Employees are people and consumers too. They are your asset when you want to do some market research. Ask them where you can find good coffee, what's a good movie, best handbag, best steak and they'll probably be able to tell you. I agree with others in this forum to start with the basics then win them over and make them Advocates. Little things mean big things to consumers and advocates – starting with respect.

  • http://socialbutterflyguy.com/ DJ Waldow

    Jason:

    Once again, you've nailed it. The big takeaway for me (& others, I hope) in this post is your quote, “My guess is that if they are asked those same questions on Facebook, they’ll say the same things.”

    If you can get folks to fully grasp that concept, I think social media is a bit less scary. If you hire smart, dedicated, motivated, empowered employees who say the “right” things face to face with customers/clients, they are likely to do the same online. The key to online is being able to educate them on some of the tools and how to best use them to talk with and respond to those talking about them or the company.

    Great stuff, as always.

    DJ Waldow
    @djwaldow

  • iancleary

    To open up the flood gates and let your employees loose on social media you need to trust them and they need to trust you. If there is a good relationship, a good bond and you support each other then why not let them loose. Yes, there will be the odd comment here or there you disagree with but the majority of their activity will be positive. I won't trust advertisement but I will trust what customers are saying and I'll also trust (not as much) what employees are saying.

  • http://www.spinsucks.com/ Daniel Hindin

    Jason, you bring up a really good point, but when I started reading, I thought you were going to go in a different direction with it.

    We all know that the majority of businesses remain skeptical about letting their employees represent them online, but the way I choose to turn that skepticism around on them is to point out that their employees represent them to the public every day — in person.

    Your brand as it exists in your customer's mind is more created and maintained by your lower-in-the-hierarchy, customer-facing employees than it is your VPs or Directors who are making the “important” decisions.

    These are the employees your customers see every day, the ones they interact with and the ones who set the tone for your brand in the eye of the public. They already do it in person or on the phone every day. So why is it any different online?

  • http://www.NehalKazim.com/ Nehal Kazim

    That's an interesting point Jason. The bottom line is that whether the employee is online talking about your latest product or at a business conference discussing the obstacles they're facing, employees are brand ambassadors no matter what the platform and medium.

    Hiring smarter is a solution as well as trusting employees to make the right decision and creating a fostering environment where they seek help if they are unsure.

  • http://www.facetime.com Sarah Carter

    I guess we pay them their salaries to represent us in the real world…one would hope that they can accurately represent us in the online world too (with a little education of course..)

  • Locall

    I have a question, tho. On facebook, employees are hesitant to post under their own names – they don't want to blend work and home – and instead are assigned the Admin role on facebook in order to post. Which is great – they post – but it doesn't build any other personas. What do you think – is that a detriment to our company to only post from one entity?

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      That's a good question and one I've seen handled different ways, none
      right or wrong. As long as you're transparent that many employees man
      the account and speak for the company, I think your fan base gets
      that. But I also encourage employees who WANT to, to also chime in to
      show that they are an audience, too. It makes the business seem much
      more vibrant and engaged when they voluntarily (or even as part of
      their roles) participate on a Facebook page for work.

  • http://www.socialcubix.com/services/agency-solutions Facebook Development Agency

    If your employees/representatives have complete knowledge of the work/services you provide, or if they are fully aware of what work you do, and you have faith in them that they're going to answer any question related to the company/firm/organization easily, then I don't think you should hesitate in making them your baristas! But similarly the question here arises that are they capable enough? Well, I think Jason referred the same point in the post “then your problem is not your employees, it’s you. Hire smarter”

    Great post Jason!

    Thanks!

  • http://www.socialcubix.com/services/agency-solutions Facebook Development Agency

    If your employees/representatives have complete knowledge of the work/services you provide, or if they are fully aware of what work you do, and you have faith in them that they're going to answer any question related to the company/firm/organization easily, then I don't think you should hesitate in making them your baristas! But similarly the question here arises that are they capable enough? Well, I think Jason referred the same point in the post “then your problem is not your employees, it’s you. Hire smarter”

    Great post Jason!

    Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/dowelltaggart Chris Dowell

    Good employees can really help a company by using social media. Do you think the public would have a different perception about BP.com if the employees were using social media? The BP employees could discuss their daily battles, daily schedule, daily successes and so forth. Also, BP employees in other parts of the world could start discussions about preventative steps. Just an idea.

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  • http://withmedia.ca KyleWith

    I love this, cause not only am I exploring the Social Media world, I'm also a certified barista. Just like the coincidence

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