Several years ago, I was helping one of my clients go head-to-head in a trademark dispute with furniture manufacturer Steelcase, an 800 pound gorilla if ever there was one. I spoke nearly every day with the attorney on the other side. Years later, I can still hear his thin, reedy voice bringing his Midwest accent right to my desktop.
He was a thin man who looked as if he could be blown across town by a stiff wind. That’s how I pictured him anyway. In my mind’s eye, there was very little difference between opposing counsel and Bill Nye, The Science Guy.
The day before the trial, I found out how wrong I was. He met me at my hotel so we could go over a few details and he was nothing short of a wall with feet. It turns out he was a starting offensive lineman for Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship team.
This past week, the story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s fictional girlfriend all but wiped Lance Armstrong off the front page. It seems Manti Te’o used nightly telephone calls, tweets, and a Twitter avatar to fill in a blank page with a complete portrait of a woman.
Now, I won’t presume to opine on what he knew and when he knew it, but I would submit that the essence of what he did was not all that unusual. Not only is it done every day, but you do it every day and every day, someone does it to you and your company.
Each day, we provide people with that small fragment of information which they will use to paint the entire portrait. A few cases in point:
- Call Comcast Xfinity support and the automated voice will tell you about an event Comcast is hyping and ask if you’d take part in a customer service survey before allowing you to pursue the question that prompted you to call. The portrait: Comcast cares more about its agenda than it does yours.
- The About Our Team page on an accounting firm’s website leads to a second landing page with separate menu options for Principals and Other Professionals. The portrait: The firm cares more about hierarchy and ego than it does about user convenience.
- A drycleaner outfits its space with a drive-through window. The portrait: This business recognizes and cares that its customers are in a hurry.
- A teacher at a parent-teacher conference makes eye contact and addresses her answers only to the mother, despite both parents being present. The portrait: The teacher regards the father’s input as secondary at best.
(OK, that last one was my axe to grind, but I’m not sorry.)
I think often about how I am enabling people I don’t even know (or don’t know well) to paint their portrait of me and my firm. Are our bios out of date? Do our profiles on LinkedIn have actual pictures or are they just those witness protection silhouettes? Can callers speak to an actual person or be connected in a hurry to their intended destination? Are they used to us delivering late or do they know that we recognize their sense of urgency? Can they tell we care?
As I said earlier, I can’t pretend to know the ins and outs of the Manti Te’o story. I don’t live my life online nearly as much as Te’o’s generation, often referred to as “digital natives.” I do, however, think that those who wonder how Te’o could possibly have claimed to know a person conjured up out of whole cloth never really pondered their own reaction to the words:
“Hi, I’m a PC.”
“…and I’m a MAC.”