In case you missed it last month, The Consumerist, a consumer affairs blog, released their “Worst Company in America” poll. The same company won it last year as well. What was surprising was the company was not one of the usual suspects e.g. pharmaceutical, financial organisations or oil companies but a computer game company, specifically, Electronic Arts (EA).

The poll was online and, clearly, many of EA’s consumers occupy the same space so perhaps this explains why EA ranked so highly. However, EA recognised their online contingent a little over a year ago, when they became a ‘social enterprise’ with Salesforce (the Microsoft Xbox in the picture tickled me).

The merits of the poll and whether EA deserve this emotive accolade can be debated elsewhere, what struck me was Peter Moore’s response (the Chief Operating Officer) in the light of their social outlook. You can read it here.

Peter’s Thoughts

Peter’s response begins with the quote “The tallest trees catch the most wind.”, akin to the Australian idea of the “Tall Poppy syndrome”; those which are successful are the ones people seek to tear down. Peter explains they won the award last year for a dodgy ending to one of their games and for being misrepresented in their support of SOPA.

It seems the list of complaints has grown in twelve months because he also goes on to admit certain failings this year with the promise to do better. However, just as he trivialised the reasons for winning the award in the previous year, he vehemently denies and snipes back at other complaints. Here is his quote:

  • “Many continue to claim the Always-On function in SimCity is a DRM scheme.  It’s not.  People still want to argue about it.  We can’t be any clearer – it’s not. Period.
  • Some claim there’s no room for Origin as a competitor to Steam.  45 million registered users are proving that wrong.
  • Some people think that free-to-play games and micro-transactions are a pox on gaming.  Tens of millions more are playing and loving those games.
  • We’ve seen mailing lists that direct people to vote for EA because they disagree with the choice of the cover athlete on Madden NFL. Yes, really…
  • In the past year, we have received thousands of emails and postcards protesting against EA for allowing players to create LGBT characters in our games.  This week, we’re seeing posts on conservative web sites urging people to protest our LGBT policy by voting EA the Worst Company in America.”

So Peter applies a few tools of argument here:

  • Of those issues he cannot refute, he acknowledges them to take the sting out of the tail. Any time these issues are raised again, he can confirm he has already acknowledged them and move on. What was not provided is a plan outlining how they will be addressed.
  • For SimCity, he simply denies the claim i.e. it is not DRM without explaining why the concerns are without foundation or the true motives for forcing solo players to be connected
  • He appeals to numbers for Origin and micro-transactions
  • He ends with a couple of trivial grievances so the reader is left with the thought that all of the issues are trivial

He ends off the post with some inspirational rhetoric being “committed to fixing our mistakes” and saying how they are constantly “listening to feedback from our players” (presumably with the tools put in place by Salesforce.) He ends by saying, in reference to his tree quote at the start “we remain proud and unbowed”, confusing, for me, whether things will be addressed or not.

The Problem

There are people that disagree with my position on this, such as Nic Healey of cnet. Nic is rightly impressed that Peter is responding at all and likes that he is committed to improving. I agree with this to an extent. However, the tone of Peter’s response strikes me as more Parent-Child than one of conversational equals. As a reader, the message I hear is “We have made some mistakes which we have given lip service to (and a free game) and, while you are telling us about other issues, we will ignore them because we do not consider them important or legitimate; we know best.” Arguments referencing the ‘silent majority’ do not confer respect and simply nullify the argument through fallacy. There is no way to know whether the silent majority are happy or not.

The problem is EA are hearing through their social tools but not listening. They are then telling their customers what is going to happen (and what is not going to happen) rather than conversing with them to find a solution.

Social Tools versus Social Philosophy

EA have social tools, thanks to Salesforce and Jeff Bradburn, EA’s Senior Director of Support Systems, says “The close relationships that we're building with customers (via these tools) are a real game changer.” However, winning The Consumerist poll two years in a row suggests, at least for some fraction of their customers, there is a problem. Buddy Media and Radian 6 are industry-proven tools so if the technology is not to blame, what is?

The problem lies in the culture exhibited by the COO and the associated social strategy. If you are going to reduce the barriers to communication you must be willing to engage respectfully with the people complaining. I have talked about the Cluetrain in the past and, again, we see the problems corporations face when they do not heed its warnings. My guess, given EA has won the award two years in a row, is that the COO is embodying an attitude evident in other areas of the business and it is this that is causing problems.

There is a wisdom regarding complaints that says that while your customers are complaining they still care and it is when they stop complaining that you are in trouble. Another wisdom suggests if you can turn around your harshest critics, they will become your strongest advocates. By ignoring the merits of the criticisms, EA is running the risk of disenfranchising those who use the services but are dissatisfied, sending them to competitors. Unless this attitude is addressed EA are, in my opinion, at risk of making the award three in a row.

The Similarities of Social and CRM

Just as CRM is both a technology and a philosophy, social networking is as well. It is very simple to access technology to open communication through online channels, what makes companies truly great is when they give great customer service through this and their traditional channels. Similarly, just as automating a bad process with CRM makes your company worse much quicker, using social channels to receive feedback and then dismiss it angers customers with much greater efficiency than possible without social channels.

Conclusions

I often come across prospective clients who have seen social tools built into CRM and are excited about the opportunities. It is true there is great potential in interacting with customers in near-real time through online channels. However, the question which I ask them and which always must be answered is “what is your social plan/strategy?” Without one you are doing the social equivalent of putting up a million web feedback forms and ignoring all of them. Social channels are a tool and, just like any tool, they can be used to delight customers or, as appears to the be the case with EA, they can be used to isolate customers.