I recently covered SalesGenius, a tool that helps salespeople monitor potential customers. I don't like it. While I am sure it will make salespeople more effective, I have real problems with the fundamental philosophy of this service, which is that it's OK to watch people without telling them you are doing so.
Is SalesGenius legal? Yes. Is there an opt-out for it? Yes. Can you disable the tracking? Yes again. But that's not what I'm talking about. What bugs me about this product, and a few others, is that it breaks an unwritten social contract. If you're in business and thinking about using this product, or any other product that processes personal information in a novel way, you need to ask yourself if breaks or bends this contract and what it will cost you to do so. I recommend that all businesspeople carefully think about the tenets of social engagement before they dive into employing these tools.
Here are a few other popular products that challenge the norms of personal networking.
In the technology field, the social network service LinkedIn is the place to go for jobs. It connects people to other people via intermediates that know both parties. For example, suppose I know you, and you know the CEO of a company where I want to get a job. LinkedIn will help me contact the CEO by asking you to vouch for me and pass on a message.
LinkedIn gets socially awkward when the connection is more than one step removed. I've been asked by the system to forward requests to connect people at two removes on both ends. In other words, it's asking me to help connect one person I don't know to another person I don't know, via two friends I do know. I don't feel comfortable connecting people I don't know, but it's awkward to tell my friends that I won't help their friends.
I solved this social dilemma by attaching a note to my profile that says I don't connect people I don't know personally. But now I fear that people think I am a jerk. Perhaps I should take the time to connect these unknown parties, but I resent it when people I don't know try to use my friends as social currency, and I'm not too happy when my friends make me a part of a request like this either. So now everybody's mad at everybody.
Update: An executive from LinkedIn wrote me to say, "Since we heard from users that they found it awkward to be in the middle of a chain where they know neither the sender nor the receiver, we changed our model. Now we limit introductions such that you always know either the sender or the receiver. No exceptions possible. The other party is always someone you know directly or a friend of someone you know directly." Hats off to LinkedIn for updating its terms of service. Beware of social networking tools that allow chains of contacts longer than friend-of-a-friend.
In this case, I am the pariah. Plaxo is a tool that I have no problem with, but others do. It's a service that keeps your address book up-to-date by sending notifications to your contacts whenever you change jobs, asking them to update their records with your new info and inform you if they have changes as well. If a Plaxo user's system sends a request to another Plaxo user, the other user's system will handle the updating automatically, and the user will never see the request. It's very handy.
But many people who receive Plaxo requests resent the intrusion and don't trust the system to keep their data private. I do trust the system and don't see the harm in telling people what my contact info is, but other people don't share my opinion. Because of this, I am no longer aggressive about sending out Plaxo requests to new contacts. My address book is not as up-to-date, but my interpretation of Net etiquette demands that I make this sacrifice.
This is one of the creepiest products I've ever seen. Jigsaw (see column) is a service that brokers the sale of business contacts. You send it your contacts or your entire address book, and in return you get money or credits to buy other contact information. If you're looking for the e-mail address of the CTO of a big public company, for example, with this system you can find out how to reach him or her directly, without going through a mutual friend (or multiple acquaintances) via a social network such as LinkedIn.
I dislike this service because it breaks a fundamental principle of personal networking: When I give you my business card, I'm giving it to you. Is my contact info public? Yes. Can you legally do with it what you want? Sure. But I expect that you will use my contact for your own personal or business use, not sell it to a system for raw cash or barter it like a baseball card for somebody else's information.
Here's the ethical test I apply to Jigsaw and other products: If I were using it, would I want to disclose that off the bat? In other words, if I were a Jigsaw user, and you gave me your card, would I say to you, "Thanks, I'll be selling this for a dollar?" I would not, because I would feel like scum for doing so. That, to me, is the indication that this system breaks a social rule and should not be used.
This brings us back to the product that prompted this column, SalesGenius. Again, this product allows salespeople to send e-mail invitations to visit the salesperson's company Web site and then reports back to the salesperson on when the e-mail was opened and precisely which pages on the site the recipient visited.
There's nothing here that Web analytics packages can't do, but SalesGenius breaks the social contract by directly attaching a monitoring function to personal e-mail. Like DidTheyReadIt, which alerts senders when their e-mail is read, it's a service that most consumers find instantly distasteful, even though every businessperson can easily see how it could make him or her a more effective communicator.
Good people, questionable products
I've met each of these four companies' CEOs and talked to them about their products. They all have well-considered ethical positions of their own. Jigsaw CEO Jim Fowler is the only one I have an intractable disagreement with; he earnestly believes Jigsaw is providing a service that helps people. As he told me recently, he's helping people get better jobs, and he sleeps easy because of that. I don't see how he can, but in issues of ethics and social interaction, reasonable people will disagree.
The other CEOs also run companies that make products of clear value to their customers. But what is the cost of that value? If you're going to use one of these products, you owe it to yourself and your business to carefully consider which side you want to come down on: Better communication or not creeping out your customers and friends. I know where I draw the line. Is Needleman getting high and mighty on us, or are these products as creepy as he says?