For more than 20 years, US retailer Nordstrom issued new employees with a handbook and a company rulebook. The rulebook featured only one rule: Use good judgement in all situations.
Lately, when The Guardian newspaper’s management team was looking for a set of social media guidelines for its journalists, it borrowed Nordstrom’s mantra to emphasise the most critical behaviour it wanted to encourage: the ability to exercise judgement.
And that’s it. While social media experts are fond of proclaiming the immutable laws or fundamental rules governing success in the field, actually, the most important quality that determines success or failure is this ability to exercise judgement.
Do I respond to that negative Tweet, Facebook update or blog post, or will doing so only make things worse?
Should my response be informal and humorous, or will this appear unprofessional and patronising?
Should I wait to see if other members of the community respond on my behalf?
Are these the ramblings of a professional complainer or is this the spark that has the potential to ignite a social-media frenzy?
These are all subtle judgement calls. And judgement is primarily a product of experience.
That is why some of the most proficient social customer teams comprise people in their forties, fifties and sixties: experienced customer-service professionals who have spent years listening to customers, dealing with their moans and unpredictable behaviour and learning how to judge situations.
They may not be the stereotypical ‘digital natives’ – the younger generation we assume are most likely to thrive in a world of Tweets, posts and shares – and they may struggle to get their heads round some of the more Byzantine technological innovations, but their life experiences have tended to fortify their judgement skills.
I run a social media course for the Institute of Directors. As you might imagine, the delegates tend to be experienced professionals in their forties and fifties. They have reached the top of their game professionally, running some of the UK’s most successful businesses, but they can feel out of their depth when it comes to social media.
They find the technology confusing and the behaviour of social media users bewildering, especially the willingness of the younger generation to share every aspect of their lives with complete strangers.
They have also witnessed at first hand the changes in customer behaviour and expectations that have been unleashed by a decade of social media innovation.
Traditional business hierarchies have been challenged and operating processes shown to be too slow and unwieldy, creating a whole new set of challenges for which their training, MBAs and younger days have left them largely ill-prepared.
The mood at the beginning of these courses is a mixture of anxiety and mild confusion. But before they despair entirely of their ability to cope, I remind them how their well-honed skill in making sophisticated judgement calls – balancing detailed analysis with the intuition that only really comes with experience – gives them a huge advantage in today’s fast moving, socially connected economy.
You can train anyone to use social media technologies: their simplicity and usability has been fundamental to their growth. But you can’t train judgement.
It takes time. It takes experience. Age is not a barrier; in fact, it gives you an incredible advantage. Your children may still treat you as a technological dinosaur but your experience gives you the ability to not only survive but thrive in this new world.
Maybe you should Tweet about it?