Facebook must reassess the way it provides customer service or risk losing its massive audience to a rival, said a crisis management expert in the wake of a new profile data issue that is vexing some of the company's 64 million users.
Gene Grabowski, senior vice president of the Levick Communications' crisis management team, said that just because Facebook is among the vanguard of the so-called new online media companies, it can't forget the basic rules of customer service and must accept a level of accountability commensurate with its popularity.
For example, he said when Google started out, it was fun and experimental and it wasn't held to a high standard. Now it's an institution and the search vendor has to behave a certain way so that Wall Street and customers respect it. If it loses that respect it could lose business and its standing to competitors.
Facebook, while nowhere as large as Google, is influential enough so that users are flocking to the site as a news source the way users go to The New York Times or The Washington Post, he said.
"That's what these new enterprises on the Internet need to learn as they mature and that is you can't abandon the old ways of handling customers. To think that you are immune to that is suicide," said Grabowski, whose team helped manage the fall out from the national spinach e.coli outbreak in 2006.
Grabowski's comments comes after the latest brouhaha embroiling Facebook, in which users are complaining about the difficulty of removing profile data when they want to leave the site for good. Facebook allows users to delete their profile data from the site, but only after users manually delete their profile information line by line.
Facebook has since said it is working on ways to make the deletion process easier, but has not promised to offer a button that would "nuke" user data with a single click, which is what some members of this Facebook group are calling for.
The issue is the latest in a customer-service quagmire the company is facing as it seeks to add more services and make more money from online ads.
Last November, in an effort to revolutionize the way social networks deliver online ads, Facebook created Beacon, only to have users stage a widely publicized revolt because it felt like a privacy violation. More than 80,000 people signed a petition created by MoveOn.org to get Beacon turned off; the company made the service opt-in.
In September 2006, more than 700,000 people signed a petition to get a new Facebook News Feed feature turned off for those who didn't want it.
To get on better footing with customers, Grabowski said the company should do three things. First, they must find a way to make it easier to end the relationship, which could be the so-called "nuke" button.
Second, Facebook must publicize this, not just discreetly slip it into its user terms. For example, when Facebook made its Beacon service opt-in, CEO Mark Zuckerberg detailed it in a blog post on the site. Facebook should follow suit with its deletion process update or risk more poor publicity that will "erode its brand."
"This could keep people from signing up if they think their information if going to be misused," Grabowski said.
Third, Facebook should have a sort of a users bill of rights, or a list of tenets promising that they will honor the rights of their customers. These things, he said, could nip these in the bud.
Even if Facebook does these things, it must be careful about preserving people's privacy, according to Electronic Frontier Foundation Staff Technologist Peter Eckersley, who told eWEEK the latest Facebook fiasco illustrates why the United States needs better privacy laws.
"Corporations simply have no business hoarding information on private individuals against their explicit wishes," Eckersley told eWEEK. "Perhaps Facebook will learn eventually to understand this, but the law needs to ensure that the story can't happen over and over again with other corporations."