The Quantum Mousetrap

Mark Eduljee's blog about Social Media Insights Intelligence and his FlightSim Movies

The customer is not King

It’s been a while since my last blog post. The family went on vacation to the Caribbean and I unplugged. The time I spent unplugged felt, curiously, both liberating and uncomfortable at the same time.

It’s interesting — when we are plugged-in we despair that life is too fast and time is fleeting; when we are unplugged and “being in the moment” we lament that time is a-wasting.  Hmm… subject for another post.

Anyway, the way I dealt with the discomfort was to accept that, for that duration, my goal WAS to just drift. “MehSon, yu gatta jus lehtitgo! Island style!” Only then did I go from being antsy to feeling relaxed. It took me about a day to get to this state (was it withdrawal?), and it was only then that I was able to go play in the sand. It felt good. And wonders of wonders, not being plugged-in had no, zero, nada, effect on my life or career for the week I was offline.

Customer is King!I felt like a King!

I recommend taking a week or so off every now and then, unplugged. Oddly enough though, while I felt like a King (I had the resources to get what I wanted, go where I wished, and to do the things I wanted to do whenever the fancy struck the family) I did not consider myself to be a King.

Why was that? As a Customer consuming goods and services on a holiday, I was supposed to be a King. That’s what the old saying has established, and on which reams of words have been written – The customer is King.

That said though, I’m going to now exercise my Kingly power and declare that it’s time to revise the old saying, with something new….something more suited for our 21st century’s economic, technical and political reality.

I’ll come out and say it now: We are not customer-Kings. We may think we are. We may be told we are.  But that’s not the modern-day reality.  I’ll also take this a step further…in this age of instant communication, access to information and alternative markets, it’s NOT in the best interests of customers or businesses to behave or think like Kings either. The “King” concept is too dated and sets the wrong expectations – on both sides of the business-customer equation.

OMG, did I hear you just say what I thought I heard you just say!?!

Yep I did. While it may sound blasphemous and contrary to traditional business doctrine and dictum, I’m going to hope you put aside your tar and feathers for another 5 minutes while you read the rest of this post. Remember, this blog is about exploring ideas and changing the way we look at things so the things we look at change(1) – so think, and OMG, stop reacting, grasshopper!

First, some historical context: The industrial revolution onward, up to the 40’s, allowed businesses to become production-oriented. It was a time summarized by Henry Ford’s eloquent offer: “You can have any color as long as it’s Black”. And as mass marketing in the post ww2 era created mass demand and consumerism, marketing pros using marketing research lead business decisions. The wisdom was: Serve the customer-King best, and the business will live long and prosper.

In the consumer driven era, that made sense. This fairly traditional and standard group-think has served business well…until the internet dragon appeared at the castle gates. And lately, it has spawned multi-headed social media technologies like Blogs, Forums (a Microsoft example), Twitter, Facebook and sites like Foursquare and Groupon.

Social technologies provides both customers AND businesses with the ability to create a voice that can interact, communicate, and as a result, build a following and reputation online; One which transcends national, language and cultural boarders.

Social changes the way business and customers will operate in the 21st century and beyond. And that’s why we need to rethink the Customer-is-King concept.

The “Kingly” mindset basically says “My power flows from my ability to affect your existence anytime I want, based on the decisions I feel like making at that time”. While this worked in limited/bound markets in the past, this doesn’t compute in the modern world. In this new global, hyper efficient, choice-rich, fluid, connected market, customers are not Kings. Influence, reputation and partnerships are the true King makers. I like that. Down with the King!

Internet technologies have been a game changer precisely because they now provide both customers and businesses with MORE options. They have brought down national, language, and cultural barriers – all of which were responsible for early-market fences which had forced businesses and customers to interact within their relatively confined castle walls (town, city, region, country) necessitating a serve-the-King mindset.

Even so, the reality is that “Customer is king” has always been a myth. If it were true:

1) Businesses would be investing, reinventing, reorganizing, and innovating around the customer. This simply has not happened. You disagree? Well explain then why support, feedback, and services – places that are on the forefront of customer engagement and interaction, are still structured in most businesses as cost centers, and not as revenue generators or innovation or design centers.
2) Products would be built for customers. Instead Products are designed for markets. Don’t believe this? Have you ever travelled in an aircraft in a seat that was designed for an “average” person? If the customer was King, flights would provide chairs for small, medium and large sized passengers. Unless it’s for a specific niche market, most products sold are based on a set of “lowest common denominator” requirements. That makes sense. You want to deliver something that can be used by most people, most of the time — balancing production efficiency and acceptable cost to find that sweet spot.
3) There would be clear, real time, actionable, customer-needs data and insights. Not happening. Instead, businesses collect customer “information” – names, addresses and such. That’s great for building (needed and valuable) operational scorecards. But that PII data (personally identifiable information) is digital driftwood within the context of the integrated customer experience. In fact, if asked most customer-Kings would rather Companies not keep this PII data (there are laws in countries to govern this too), unless, Companies can demonstrate it will be used for the sole purpose of enhancing the individuals interaction experience (and that too up to a point, which also varies with the individual customer).

Worse…the Customer-is-King group-think has led to simplified slogans and top-down inspired sound bites designed to rally front service center troops to drive customer-friendly behavior. That’s why we get pithy slogans like:

* Customer SAT is job #1
* We are not satisfied until you are satisfied
* We delight in delighting our customers!
* And Sam Walton’s most famous: “There is only one boss; The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.” It would be nuts (and probably dangerous if you worked in Wal-Mart) not to listen to and agree with Sam!

Meh!

No cool-aid for me today, thanks.

This oversimplified view of the Customer retention goal (it is not a business strategy) gets sketchy and confusing depending on who in the organization you are talking to, and what their level or function is, and, as a result, any business goal of having a predictable, consistent, and measurable customer engagement experience gets really hard to frame, build, and manage. Also, there is often insufficient Company governance to help everyone understand the scope of their roles and the extent to which they are “empowered” to give their “Kings” what they want to reach stated Satisfaction (SAT) goals, and to keep them returning (this is often mislabeled as customer loyalty. More on that subject in a future post).

I’d argue that in the case of Wal-Mart, (and you could probably substitute any successful business name here) their success is the result of a business strategy which enabled them to become ruthlessly efficient with their supply chain to make their product cost low enough to make themselves highly competitive. They did this to build shareholder value — as all businesses should be in the business of achieving. People visit Wal-Mart BECAUSE and AS A DIRECT RESULT of their price point efficiency strategies, which ultimately strengthens their market position. The fact that Wal-Mart then implemented in-store and marketing programs to address customer satisfaction drivers aimed at improving the customers engagement experience, seals the illusion that its customers are its Kings. But make no mistake; the sale/post-sale customer satisfaction experience is a company tactic aimed at making customers feel good about their Wal-Mart experience. (Not the other way around).

Thinking of  The Customer as a central, all-powerful King should not be a core business strategy. Nor should it be about wanting to “Make loyal customers”. So what’s the alternative?… Keep reading to see the strategies businesses need to adopt in this modern era. (Feel free to read my other post about wants vs needs)

This Customer-is-King illusion permeates all aspects and levels of the consumer experience.

* Hear about the Airlines unilaterally decided to charge for bags? Did you, Mr. King agree to that? More importantly, as a King, can you take your business elsewhere? Hmm…
* What about British Petroleum’s name-change to “Beyond Petroleum” – Now you know they are reorganizing and reinventing and investing and diversifying to bring you, their King, better goods and services! You know that, riiight? And they are going to stick the Earth with their Gulf-spill cleanup bill just to prove their point.
* Care for a little “You can’t have dinner here because you did not reserve a table”?  Or how about “we have a 4G phone for you – doesn’t matter that there are only a smattering of markets that run 4gnetworks at this time”?  And don’t get me started with either the Finance, Utilities, Banking, or Insurance industries….their ability to tag their customer-Kings is legendary.
* I mentioned the uncomfortable transatlantic flight in a seat designed for a mythical “average” person earlier, but how about “we can sell you a shiny new car — that gives you the same gas mileage as a Model-T Ford. But because you, our King asked for it, we added 6 cup holders (which cost us 3 cents)! See how we listen to you, our Liege! ”

Are you still feeling like a Customer-King? Hmm…

Its times like these when I feel like a Kingly chump.

But wait – it gets nuttier!

The idea that customers are Kings has also spawned some crazy and irresponsible behavior on both the business, and customer side. Consider some modern-day behavior that did not exist 20 years ago…

  • “As a King, they offer me money-back guarantees and 90 day no-questions asked replacements!” There is the story about Nordstrom’s replacing a garment that a customer had inadvertently stained. What customer service!! Really!?? Businesses aren’t charities. The cost of all these wonderful perks and guarantees are passed on to all Kings!
  • “I paid you good money for this. Now you owe me unending upgrades, support, and servitude” What?! Since when did a purchase price begin to include a hefty dose of selfishness, a jar full of tantrums, and unreasonable rights which, if the shoe were on the other foot, would never be agreed to?
  • “A King should never pay retail price – I want something for nothing – and I’ll try to bargain you down further from there!” Do you honestly believe that BS about sales?  For the record: Sales are designed to make you feel good, but at root cause, businesses run them for one of 3 specific reasons: a) older inventory needs to be moved for newer stuff that is projected to sell faster — in which case you are getting outdated/sub-standard items b) loss leaders designed to get you to purchase other items once you are engaged in the purchasing experience, at full price — never fails or c) matching competition – which, by definition is not a deal anyway.

Kings pay — one way or another. There are no free banquets.

To be clear, I do not begrudge the fact that for-profit businesses are run as businesses. They should be. A well run business with great product experiences and service offerings makes me drool.

But don’t insult my intelligence by calling me a customer-King. I’m not one. You can’t make me one. I have no desire to be one. Or be treated like one. Instead, EVERY customer should be treated fairly, lawfully, respectfully, and get full value for their money. That’s not a Kingly concept. That’s just plain common sense for both customers and business.

So what’s the alternative?

Rethink and reposition the customer-business relationship paradigm to align to 21st century market and technical realities.

Move from “Customer is King” group-think towards recognizing that long-term Company reputation and strong, trustworthy Customer partnerships are the true King makers.

How should business go about making this transition? A couple of key suggestions:

  1. Let go of the out-dated idea that businesses need to organize around “the customer”. The customer is a function in the overall business process.  Not a strategy. There are multiple channels and connections to this customer function in the new reality. Traditional customer service centers will increasingly be treated as the LAST option a customer uses to contact and interact with a business.
  2. Let go of the out-dated idea that businesses need to work for the customer. Work with them instead. …”For” implies a contract with an end in mind. “With” implies a partnership with continued, shared success. “With” is better for long term sustained growth. It thrives in a framework of clear, realistic, honest, value-exchange expectations. Transition from selling a product/brand to building an experience. Feed it by providing appropriate channels for feedback and engagement throughout the product lifecycle so customers have a voice and feel a sense of ownership and connection.
  3. The level (quantity) of services is immaterial. The appropriate level of service, tuned to the customer engagement model, is critical. The Customer engagement function should be goal-ed with having a clear, up to date understanding of the depth and strength of the business-customer relationship. The deeper the connection and relationship, the higher the level of service to be provided. It’s important to engage with appropriate levels of services to earn and build long term trust and reputation.
  4. Balance technology and automation derived efficiencies with the customer need for human contact and ease of use. Just because a business can automate to save short term cost does not automatically mean that it’s a smart long term play for customers or the business.
  5. Invest in social media listening capacity and resources. Yes, I’m a bit passionate and biased about this one since I work in this field. But I’ve witnessed the power of unbiased, timely, actionable social media listening data. It has the awesome capacity for rapidly changing both the customer and business experience. One blog or one Tweet from a highly connected influential customer has the capacity to become a global conversation within minutes! Businesses who choose to reject an active, unbiased listening strategy do so at their peril,  and are simply missing out on mining the most current, active, and relevant conversations their customer are having about them.
  6. Recognize that a customer is born long before contact is made. Customers now have the capability to do a lot of pre-sale homework, research, and comparisons. Friends, search, and global networks of experts are where customers will increasingly turn towards to help define choices they make. Business can’t control these online social and user-generated/initiated discussions. They can however indirectly influence them with their reputation.  Reputation is earned, over time. Buzz is fleeting and sentiment rises and falls…chasing these yo-yo metrics tends to make everyone feel sea sick.
  7. Rewrite the business-customer contract. Move from: “You (the customer) need to feel satisfied so you will reward us with more of your business”, to: “We (the business) need to earn your trust. You will then want to reward us — proactively, and in ways that you control”. Trust and reputation are earned by providing consistent, honest, and predictable product/service experiences. It matters not what a marketing campaigns say anymore. Unreal truth-stretching will get you spoofed on YouTube so fast that you become the butt of global conversation jokes within hours. Company and customer actions are fact-checked, recorded, remembered, and matter. Information and data now lives on the Net forever to be regurgitated in Search results in multiple languages.
  8. Focus on the right business strategies that drive consistency, predictability, value. Worry less about customer-is-king slogans, gaining loyalty, higher NP scores, real-time sentiment tracking, or debates about affinity vs loyalty vs satisfaction and which come first or which is more important or which is better. Customers don’t care about this stuff!  These are all end-state metrics, not means to an end. Instead, get reeeallly good at providing a “damn good burger”, or a “fabulous flight experience” or a what-cha-ma-call-it that does not stop working the day after the warranty expires.  Do that and customers, and those other things, are sure to follow.

So, as a business, will you continue to create, maintain, and market the illusion that your customers are Kings? Or will you assume responsibility for rethinking the value of your market reputation and commit to building “connective tissue” with your customers for a more stable, longer lasting relationship — one which provides mutual value?

Do that and maybe The King may rock and roll in and buy 20 of your whatcha-ma-call-its for all his friends, regularly.

And as a customer, are you going to continue to behave and act like a bejeweled King on a stage playing in the spotlight?  There is a more real world that is off-stage. Try it. You may just like it.

I close with words from the King…“I’m all shhuk up! Uh-Huh! ThannkYuh, ThannkYuh VeryMuhch!”

Thoughts, discussion, agreements, disagreements, and/or comments welcome. (Please click the comments and reaction link below)


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Quote1: Dr. Wayne Dyer
Image: marapets.com

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