Nothing New Under the Human Nature Sun: Why we Already Know How to “Win Friends and Influence People In the Digital Age”

Dale Carnegie’s classic 1936 best-seller “How to Win Friends and Influence People” has had a social media era update.

Taking all the tried and tested methods of Carnegie’s ground-breaking guide to successful personal influence, this new version from the company that bears his name seeks to explore how the age of Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin have changed the nature of successful business and other social relationships.

It’s fair to say that, so far, the critics don’t like it.  The New York Times described it as “radically hapless”, suggests it has been composed using “refrigerator magnets stamped with corporate lingo” and expresses relief that we can all pretend the book has never been published, since the original version is thankfully still available in all good bookshops. 

As you would expect from a good literary critic, there is much emphasis on use of language and its failure to engage.  However, there is also passing mention of something much more pertinent to customer service professionals and customers – whether this book tells us something new about our relationships in our vastly different world of digital communication and social media.

What is fascinating is that the answer is no.  But not because it fails to get to grips with what is important or doesn’t offer ways in which we can navigate ourselves to happy and productive relationships using all the new technology we now have. The answer is no simply because Dale Carnegie’s advice of 75 years ago is still as valid and fresh as it was when a letter or a personal call were really the only ways to communicate. 

If you are wondering how it can possibly be that that the internet, mobile phones, social networking and their like have not fundamentally altered how good relationships are created and maintained, it is possibly because there is a whole industry dedicated to selling support and ideas for survival in the digital age.  Many people have a vested interest in focusing on the medium of the communication as a defining feature of successful customer relationships.

And to be fair, there are real differences that we need to get our heads around.  As examples, the speed of communication has exponentially increased; the reach of customers’ opinions is far greater; and, as a result, the control of brand creation has tilted in favour of the customer.  All of these are important features for a customer service organization to consider.  Who would blame an organization for wanting a hand to hold as it steps further into the unknown?  Or for being prepared to pay for the hand of someone who seems to be 1, 2 or 3 steps ahead in their understanding and confidence? 

No-one.  But the reason that a book written in 1936 doesn’t tell us anything fundamentally different is because there is nothing new under the sun here.  We might be using all the new technology at our fingertips with gusto but, at heart, people are still the same as they were in 1936.  We still want the same things from our relationships with other people at work, at home or in the marketplace, and we still respond well to the same kind of positive regard and open communication that Dale Carnegie advised.

If customer service organizations fail to see the wood for the trees and, confused by the pace of technological change, focus on the mode of communication and its implications, rather than the nature of the communication, then the quality of customer service that we get will be no better.

In his original book Carnegie recommends:

  • 6 ways to make people like you including, encouraging others to speak and listening carefully, showing a genuine interest in someone, talking about their interests and making them feel important
  • 12 ways to win people over to your point of view including showing respect for others’ ideas, opinions and feelings, admitting your own shortcomings and mistakes quickly, enabling people to feel that good ideas are theirs and conveying your faith in their good character.
  • 9 ways to influence people’s behaviour without getting their backs up including avoiding direct instruction, allowing people to save face at all times and admitting personal mistakes before drawing attention to those of others.

All of this could be a structure for customer service training – and of course people with an innate gift for service do much of this naturally and effortlessly in their everyday lives.  What customers want out of an interaction with an organisation is the same whether they friend them on Facebook, get a tweet or meet face to face.  The way we respond to our interactions with others is always informed by our emotions and perceptions. 

That the medium hides the face and the voice of the person we are communicating with is irrelevant to our hardwired social animal brains.  All of our communications are person-to-person, however removed and automated the people involved in the interaction may appear to be on the surface.

Customers are people, and people want:

  • people they are talking to to be respectful of them as an individual and to listen to their needs, their perspectives and their opinions;
  • to interact with people they trust and like and who seem to trust and like them; and,
  • people to be human and collaborative – to know that others are prepared to admit their own failings and to be forgiving and understanding of flaws in others.

There is not much else.  And the key here is that the medium of communication makes just about no difference. 

It is possible to come across as likeable on a Facebook page.  It is as easy to apologise for a mistake and acknowledge the inconvenience it has caused in a tweet as it is in a letter.  If an organisation uses social media to really listen to customers, customers will perceive that and appreciate it – just as if someone listens to our complaints in person.

Despite leaping at the opportunities for increased communication that new technology offers, the best service organisations will not be distracted from what matters to customers by the noise and bright lights of the new technology:  They will continue to focus efforts on engaging with customers and understanding how we feel, just as Dale Carnegie advised in 1936.


References and further information

The book on the website


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