Not too long ago I arrived at work one morning to find a message in my Inbox from “Concerned Citizen,” who had written us through the Contact Us form on our website. Concerned Citizen claimed to be a MacIntosh technician working in North Austin. He said that he had repaired a computer that we had previously worked on, and damaged in the process. Specifically, he said that we had broken the microphone cable. I remembered the job. It was an Intel-based Imac that needed a hard drive replacement. I didn’t doubt that Concerned Citizen was right. That type of Mac is a little tricky to work on, and because of the design, it is extremely easy to break the microphone cable during disassembly or reassembly without even realizing it.
But it wasn’t enough for this fellow to simply call our attention to the issue. He insulted our work, our skills, our website, even our blog. His message was profane and gratuitously, spectacularly rude. It was also anonymous: As his email address, he left “firstname.lastname@example.org.” Classy.
I was bothered by this for three reasons. One, I was annoyed that we had caused a problem. Two, I was perturbed that the customer did not come back to us so that we could fix the problem. Three, the absolutely sneering, hateful, rudeness of the (anonymous!) message left me quite literally fighting mad.
However, what Concerned Citizen may not have realized is that each incoming message logs the originating IP address. I could use that information, plus other clues the messenger left, to track him down. Which I did, in probably less than two hours. I sent my suspect a note and, sure enough, his response bore the same IP address as the original message. Bingo. I wrote him back informing him that I did not appreciate his anonymous, hateful jab. His response was . . . not gracious, and things quickly went south. I began to wonder if maybe this fellow had a screw loose, or worse, might be capable of doing something rash.
Concerned Citizen turned out to be a guy working out of his south Austin duplex (ironically, maybe four blocks from my house) under at least 4 different internet aliases. This guy, I’ll call him “Lawrence,” specialized in Macs and did mostly onsite work. His message had so reeked of immaturity that I figured he was some maladjusted kid, probably not even 20 years old. Well I was wrong. Following the various links, I found that “Lawrence” was actually pretty close to my age (I was born in 1958), had a sideline as a musician, and had worked for the same company as I, years before. I found that we also had some people in common, so I called one of them to get a more complete picture of the guy. Turns out that Lawrence had quite a reputation. According to my source, a well-known local musician, hardly anyone wants to play gigs with Lawrence any more because he is so consistently abrasive and difficult.
I actually remembered Lawrence from our time together at the same company. He had worked in IT. I recalled that he seemed like kind of a serious guy, gruff but capable, but actually very likable once you got to know him. I understood suddenly that things must have taken rather a sour turn for him, and felt a pang of sadness at the realization. So instead of telling him off, I sent a rather conciliatory note that concluded by saying that I hoped things got better for him.
This was kind of a special case, but there remains a larger point. Too often, people view their competitors as enemies. This is misguided, because our competitors have as much right to a share of the business as we do. There is such a thing as professional courtesy among competitors. If Lawrence had simply told me what happened as a kind of heads up, I would have said Oops, thank you very much. And–guess what–I would have owed him a favor. I could have bought some parts from him, sent him some business, helped him out on occasion. We could have begun a mutually beneficial collaboration. He wins, we win. Alas, because of the choices Lawrence made, it was not to be.
Even so, I have to say that if Lawrence were to apologize and mean it, I would forget that the whole thing ever happened. Something tells me that’s not going to happen though.