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December 19, 2008

How to be a human

Josh50_2 by Josh Bernoff

Yesterday I talked to the reservations manager at a hotel in Freeport, Maine. I had made a non-refundable reservation using Expedia, they already had my money. Then I found out I won't need the reservation. I was screwed. But I still called the hotel and asked, nicely, if there was anything they could do. I restrained myself and didn't lie about funerals, nor did I rail against the system, because I knew I was stuck. I just asked.

The reservations manager explained, nicely, how these reservations work (which I already knew). But I will be going back to Freeport, I have family there. So when she suggested a free night's stay in the future, I was happy. It's not a refund, but I knew I didn't deserve that. And you know, she treated me like a human being, and I did the same to her, and I left a little lighter in the wallet, but happy. And I will be going back to her hotel, and not just for the free night.

How_to_be_a_human_2 The problem with this interaction is that it's all too unusual these days.

I work with a lot of clients. I travel a lot. I collaborate a lot with my coworkers, some more junior than me, some high up in management. I talk to reporters and bloggers and my publisher.

And I get a lot of email. An awful lot. After 13 years as an analyst, a lot of people know my email address, and I’m on many, many marketing mailing lists. I am a target for PR people.

In all these interactions I have observed something. When people treat me like a human and not a “marketing target,” I like that. Not only that, when I make a human connection with somebody, whether it’s the client building a social application strategy or the person checking me in for my flight, it goes better.

When things go wrong, I can nearly always trace it back to somebody not behaving like a human, and not treating me like a human.

I will no longer put up with this. And you, my readers, are going to help me.

Those of you who have read The Cluetrain Manifesto (most people reading this blog, I would guess) will find this theme familiar. I find it a little strange to be reaching this conclusion ten years after they did. Cluetrain may well be right that this is the future of business, but it sure ain’t here yet. Not even close.

It will never be here, because treating people as a mass is more efficient than treating them as humans. Being part of an organization is harder than behaving like a human. And while that isn’t likely to change any time soon, I think some of the most valuable things that a company can do come from being human and talking to people as humans. And some of the most awful things that companies do come from being inhuman to customers.

Now that the humans have blogs, YouTube, Twitter, and discussion forums, the balance may shift a bit.

It’s time to do some lessons in being human.

Consider yourself on notice. To every PR person, every service person, everyone I interact with: I may call out your humanity right here. I will also call out your inhumanity here. I will make every effort to contact you first, to get your point of view, but I will out you.

My life is now an open book. Laugh, suffer, and smile along with me. Argue with me if you want. But treat me like a human. Please.

Look for future posts tagged "How to be a human." Or write your own.


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Ron Ploof


This is by far the most important aspect of Social Media that the majority of companies don't understand. It's about people. It's about being human.

Unfortunately, when we enter business, employers surgically remove our personalities and replace them with policies and procedures, which makes it very easy for us NOT to be human.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Bernoff, but it's our policy is to..." or "Yes, Mr. Bernoff, but I'm not authorized to..."

All are built-in excuses that perpetuate the practice.

We don't manage people, we manage "resources." In consulting we talk about a Full-Time-Equivalent (FTE) which is essentially a dehumanized resource!

But every now and then, when you run into a human, it's the best experience. When someone steps out of their role and does a little extra to help, you never forget it.

Mark Pack

Very much agree with the importance of remembering you're a human when interacting with someone, and the power of social media to help humanise an organisation.

However, we've been here before with email, where the idea of talking directly to someone else had an initial very positive impact. Until that is email volumes, automated reply systems and badly thought out out-sourcing of email support started spreading...

So there's a big risk of social media following a similar path, unless of course we all shout out regularly in the interim.

Susan Hanley

Josh: You are so right and it's funny, I asked a customer service rep this past weekend if it would please be possible to just "treat me like a person." I also travel a lot so I have been unable to attend to an increasingly flaky Dell computer that I thought was 3 years old. When I finally reached my limit and called a local tech support guy to help me, he came over and told me that I'd have to get a new PC. I did, but the very next day, I was checking some paperwork in the PC folder and found out that, in fact, my PC was 2 years old and shipped on December 13, 2008 and had a 2 year warranty. Thinking that maybe I could actually get Dell to take care of this, I called Customer (I Don't) Care. Guess what? The warranty didn't start when the computer got to me, it started when it was shipped. And, since I was calling on December 13, 2008, I was out of luck because the warranty expired on December 12, 2008 - less than 12 hours before I made my phone call. I tried to reach different people to get someone to treat me like a human 8 times on December 13 with absolutely no luck. Unlike your experience, not one Customer (I Don't) Care manager or employee was empowered to do anything for me or even suggest a remedy similar to the one you got. You give Dell a lot of credit for listening to the Groundswell in your book. Clearly, not everywhere.

Steve Ames

Thanks Josh, that was refreshing. I'm with you. I'll look forward to how it goes!


Josh - can you explain how this post would have been different if the hotel rep told you no?

Josh Bernoff

@Susan Based on what I have seen from Dell, you may get contacted soon because of your complaint here. Please let me know.

Josh Bernoff

@Allen, if she had told me no, because the rules simply don't allow it and she can't bend them for me no matter what. I would simply have not gone back. Especially if she got all corporate on me.

If she had told me no and convinced me why that was appropriate, then she still gets credit for being a human, and maybe I go back there.

Ari Herzog

Did the hotel rep speak to you as "Josh" or as "Mr. Bernoff," and would the casual nature of using your first name make the speaker act more human?

Yann Ropars

Nice Josh... I was last week blogging about the growing trend of Trust 2.0 - Businesses or people might be reluctant to embrace 2.0 as they often enter this sphere with the same 'push' mindset. We saw it with Motrin, Facebook Beacon and many other examples, Social Media is like a hive, when things smell bad or untruthful, the 'conversational bees' (aka: us) are now empowered to re-humanize the automated Propaganda Relations.
Businesses who do it the right way online or offline are just building powerful trust. Trust 2.0 is just on steroid...

Be real.

Josh Bernoff

Ari -- good questions. She called me "Mr. Bernoff" and I think that's appropriate, since I don't know her and we're not on a first name basis.

In general calling people by name at all is a good step, although it can be overused. I note that on airplanes, the first class flight attendants call you "Mr. Bernoff" and the coach flight attendants generally treat you as part of the mass -- you don't have a name at all.

Stefano Maggi

Great post, Josh.
The concept of "being a human" is crucial for the evolution of the web.

I've just written a post that applies it to digital communication, with particular attention to the shift of the internet to being everyday more relational.

This is my post about "how to be a human" in a digital world.


mark bjornsgaard

Good post

To be human in a world set up for profit - perhaps the buggest challenge we face in the 21s century.

The psycho-analytical world is a valuable source of information and experience in this area. I have often thought what I provide as a social media engagement specialist - is simply counselling for brands.

In this respect accessible books on psychoanalysis can be very helpful in my experience - working with emotional intelligence, the road less travelled, love's executioner and the power of now amoungst others, have helped clients and marketers I've worked with understand the human condition.

Tony Tonev


I completely agree. This is true not only for hotels and companies, but maybe even more-so for colleges.

I go to a large state university and this Friday, I missed my physics final because it was moved to Wednesday. They apparently sent out an email which I never got.

I immediately tried to contact the professor and got a response of essentially "not my problem." The Physics Department Chair sided with the professor, and the Chancellor, didn't even respond to my email. Not one of these "people" even bothered to say "I'm sorry" or "That's too bad," but their silence very clearly stated: "It makes no difference to us that you've paid for this class, spent 3 hours a week here, and studied thoroughly. We don't care how much you know about physics, and we don't care if you have to waste your time and money retaking it next semester unnecessarily. Your grade will be based entirely on a simple misunderstanding about the date of the final -- consequently you fail. Profit and convenience means much more to us than fairness to you."

If anyone happens to think this is the wrong way to treat students, you tell Chancellor Hemenway to do something about it: rhemenway@ku.edu in his final months before retirement.


I like your post on being human and have written mine already...since I have built my business around human to human marketing as I like to call it. Since I do believe that the future of marketing is being human. My blog is in Dutch but my presentation on human to human marketing is in English and you can find it here: http://twurl.nl/t1s4wd. I am looking forward to your reaction.

Dell-Bill B

@Josh, Great post. Words to live by for any one who interacts with customers.

@Susan, Sorry to hear about your experience. I would very much like to get this sorted out for you. I'll get with you via the contact info posted on your website.

Raj C.

Wow, the only thing more impressive than the blog post was what went down in the comments section.

While I haven't read your book (just paid my tuition, talk about inhuman...) I can tell you that I've long considered myself someone who treats people with respect, like a human should be. But I have to say, I'm not sure I always do. Whether it's the homeless man on the street, or the potential marketing affiliate, I realize that I have a long ways to go. Anyway, thanks for the blog post Sometimes all we need is a little reminder to get back on track

Susan Hanley

@Josh: You were right - I did get contacted by Dell as a result of my complaint here. Yesterday, a new (well, refurbished) computer was delivered to my home courtesy of Bill B at Dell. What I really appreciate is that Bill listened to my story and actually suggested a solution that was pretty creative and very "human." I just wish that the Customer Care folks would have been more empowered to help me originally the way your reservations manager helped you. It's a much better experience to get help when you first call, not when you complain. It would also have been far more cost effective for Dell. However, I did want to share that the Groundswell works!

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