“We the People” is an online petition website set up to allow citizens to get responses on popular issues. However, it has largely been exploited to serve as both a humor device and a form of popular protest. For instance, it has been used to petition for the creation of a “Death Star” and even to propose secession. Clearly, these types of issues were not the intended purpose of the site, causing the site to raise its threshold from 5,000 petitions to 100,000 petitions. While many may condemn the site for bending to these unintended uses and making it more difficult for others to use the site according to the original purpose, there are some valuable lessons to be learned here about customer service.
One thing that the White House has done well in light of the more frivolous uses of the site has been to counter with humor. The “Death Star” petition was answered with a response which was chock full of Star Wars references. By responding in this way, The White House was able to get in on the joke (rather than being the target) and also humanized itself. Businesses often take themselves too seriously in customer communication settings. While maintaining professionalism is always key, it doesn’t hurt to be a little silly and joke around to let people know that, yes, you are a group of people and not a mindless machine.
The White House has also been good about responding to even highly negative petitions on the site with regularity. Although there is no requirement to answer a question at any specific time even once the petition threshold is reached, the decision to address inflammatory comments shows strength and confidence. As a business, it is important to remember that even negative responses on customer-facing channels can be positive if you can address them and get a conversation going. Often, if your responses are well reasoned and effective, you can even recruit other customers who will defend you, serving as brand advocates and lending credibility to your business. Staying silent, which might be the safest choice in some damage control scenarios, gives all the power to your attackers.
It is dangerous to create divisions between “us” and “them” in your communication channels. By establishing an open dialogue, you will maintain the respect of your client base. In that sense, “We The People” may be making some missteps by raising their petition requirements to greater and greater heights, showing a lack of confidence in their transparency channels. Still, the fact that such a channel exists with White House officials is a great idea, and businesses should consider taking some lessons regarding direct communication, and mitigating unintended consequences, from this oft-inaccessible government entity.