Why Fanboys Can Be a Tech Company's Worst Enemies

Last Updated Jun 28, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Being a fanboy is like joining a religion, except instead of a deity, you get a microprocessor, system code, and all the peripherals and accessories you can afford. True fans -- whether of Google (GOOG), Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT), or Sony (SNE) -- can't understand how anyone can choose a competing brand. What they don't generally see is that, ironically, their devotion can actually damage the products and companies they love.

To get better at anything, you have to fail, pick yourself up, and try again. However, this only works when you know you've failed. Someone has to rub your nose in the mistakes so you notice them. But you'll rarely hear real complaints from fanboys. Even when they aren't pleased with a product, they'll often couch their language in worshipful tones: "Oh, Wonderful One, I know that the planet orbits on the path your devices calculate, and I want you to know that even though I wish the new product didn't have this tiny flaw that melts my fiber connection to the Internet, I'm still a loyal customer and hope you don't get mad at me."

To outsiders, the fanboys lash out with zeal, pointing out how their brand is clearly the best, and so what if there's a puddle of molten optical glass on the lawn? Instead, they might realize that companies should sell products that, you know, actually work when they come out of the box. Anything less is ridiculous. An iPhone 4 loses reception if you don't hold it the "right" way, according to Apple? Absurd -- it should freaking work the way people use cell phones. An Xbox red ring of death? A joke that should never have happen happened. Even when companies replace goods, unless they have the grace to say, "We're sorry we screwed you," it's a slap in the face. Complain loudly about egregious practices and eventually companies will do better.

The other day, I spoke with Robert Hogan, an expert on organizational effectiveness, about what it takes to be a good leader. One point he stressed was the need for good judgment. "The difference between the winners and losers are the ones who say I got it wrong; I need to change it." If the amplified voice of activist customers is always positive, a company may not hear about the problems and make necessary changes. Fanboys are just too easy. It's like having a potential romantic interest constantly sitting by the phone, waiting for a call. Who needs to improve?

Many high tech companies will go on at length about the wonders of having unpaid evangelists, otherwise known as word of mouth. From a business view, it can make a lot of sense and is often an effective way to promote a product or business. But that's so long as the customer testimonial is sincere and believable. "In the last five years, I only had a problem once with my Gorbelfax, and the company took care of it immediately," is a powerful type of statement.

Unfortunately, fanboys easily cross the line from sincerity and reason into torrents of unconditional love and adoration that strike all but other fanboys as excessive at best and creepy at worst. It's one thing to be enthusiastic, but when the sun rises and sets on some product and you cannot see any limitations, you're likely putting off civilians.

Fanboys should try some moderation. Remember, the object of your affection is only a company that makes products. No matter how good the products -- and no products are that good -- it's not a real relationship. Be a little more demanding and you might find that in the long run you're even more satisfied.

And for the executives who like to listen to fanboys? Forget about the people who like you. Find out why people don't like you, if you really want to get better at what you do, grow market share, and increase sales and profits.

Images: Flickr users kriegsman, Official Star Wars Blog, Isacar Marín, College Park Speed and the...'s, CC 2.0. Related:

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.