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October 10, 2009

The Era of the Faceless Giant Corporation Is Over

It wasn't all that long ago when the names of companies were more likely to make me think of unfeeling skyscrapers reaching toward the heavens with their steel and glass than I was to think of the people inside who made the brand stand for something, and architected the products to make them do what they do. But the last decade's increased potential for transparency and public visibility of company employees and leadership, culminating in some's active use of social media has made many of these previously faceless giants - Google, Microsoft, Dell, Apple, Amazon... human. And this transformation adds a clear expansion of loyalty between these previously untrusted, unseen companies, and their customers - as those who see the companies as a collection of humans not so much as cogs in a massive machine, but instead as peers.

While many a blog post or Twitter stream has sounded out a screed against a company or a product, I am now more cautious than ever to avoid emotional critical rants against companies and brands I feel may have done me wrong. Some of this is due to the increased transparency of said companies - and no doubt a good amount of it has been my lucky position to gain access to some of the most respected brands in the business, to meet the people who make the decisions and see each day as a challenge with aims to shared goals, just like we do.

In March of 2006, I wrote a post titled "Giving Microsoft a Human Face", highlighting the work of the secretive "Mini-Microsoft", saying the blog helped provide "a clear view into the struggles and triumphs and wishes that are true in any corporation", be it Microsoft or a small business. I was similarly impressed with Robert Scoble's work while he was at Microsoft, and blogs from tech leaders like Jonathan Schwartz at Sun. Two years later, I admitted to you that I have a bias in favor of small companies, and am less likely to give the big ones a pass. But as time passes, I am seeing even the biggest companies as a collection of small units. And the more engaged they are in the blogosphere, or on Twitter, the easier it is to reach them for product feedback and customer service, the more the image of the skyscraper melts away.

In the 2008 post, I used the example of Google as a company big enough that I could still shake my fist in the event of bumps. I said, "The big guys are held to higher standards, and always will be. It comes with the territory." But even in the last eighteen or so months, Google to me has changed. Through interactions with many on the Google Reader team, discussions with Matt Cutts, and getting to know Rick Klau on the Blogger team, Google seems just as accessible as any other corporation, despite its large size.

On Friday, I spent three hours at Google headquarters in Mountain View, working face to face with Rick and a pair of skilled Google engineers, working on making changes to my blog. Though the front end should not have changed in appearance, you can see that posts now display as coming from blog.louisgray.com instead of www.louisgray.com/live as they did before. While the URLs have changed, so too has the hosting. I've been hosted on FTP for four years, and made the big move yesterday, while aiming to avoid any issues. Rick, seeing me as a good test case for an established blog with more than 2,000 posts, wanted to see if we could find any hiccups that could possibly befall other Blogger users in the same scenario. And despite the fact I was in one of the world's most tech-savvy corporations, we definitely ran into issues. Some were possibly my fault. Others were probably due to my old Web host, Register.com. But we worked as a team, and finally got it all figured out, a little behind schedule.

Google (and Rick specifically) didn't owe me any special hands-on effort. In the old way of customer service, companies tend to just post guidelines on the Web, and should you not have all running perfectly, it's either your fault outright, or you need to be hand held with customer support. But the new era of customer service, marketing and sales is transparent and personal - and this should go for every company, big and small.

Before I get any comments saying that Google reached out to me because I'm "A-List" (I'm not) or anything of that note, trust me, I know I was lucky, and I let Rick and his team know I appreciated their elite intervention. I try to provide Google and all other services I work with a good amount of customer feedback, and yesterday was as much about that as it was them providing me aid.

I look at the technology space, and for the most part, companies have made that transition from closed to open, from inert to living. I believe that many other industries could serve to improve and open up. After all, who is the public face of a company like GE? Fisher Price? McDonalds? These companies that would probably sit immobile in the face of a hate-filled rant still look like buildings to me. And I believe that they too will open up. The era of being dark and hidden and untrusted is over.

FTC Disclosure: Google let me eat lunch at their place for free yesterday. It was yummy.