The Empowered Customer is dead, long live the Empowered Customer

May I wish you a contented and fulfilling 2019, and hope that your January regime, whether it’s Dry, Vegan or otherwise, isn’t too brutal.

If you’re like me, you will have spent a lot of the last few months in the tender embrace of online retailers, from Black Friday, through Cyber Monday, Christmas, January Sales and stocking up for whatever ‘New Year, New You’ regime you’ve chosen.

As I hit ‘delete’ on the latest “tell us how we did” text, and with all the coverage of fake news, dodgy analytics, and the rare sight of Mark Zuckerberg actually turning up to a government committed to sit there looking like someone who swallowed a frog, I’ve started to ponder whatever happened to the golden dream of customer empowerment, and what we can do about it.

And, at risk of sounding too much like the crusty old baby boomer which I am, I wonder if the time has come to think seriously about how we can re-inject some good old respect and trust to repair what I believe has become a tarnished vision.

I remember the early discussions about the empowered customer in my business. The idea was that digital would create a body of ever more well-informed and powerful customers who could propel a business to greatness or consign it bankruptcy with a star rating or review. We could get real competitive edge if we managed this right.

As I recall, we didn’t talk about the tension this empowerment creates in the relationship between customer and vendor.

Yes, we want happy, well-informed, empowered customers, but our overriding requirement is to run a sustainable business where we continually increase shareholder value. In other words, we may love our customers, but ultimately we’re here to sell them more and more stuff.

As Scott Adams’ Dogbert memorably said: “There are two rules of management. One: the customer is always right. Two: we must punish them for their arrogance.”

I think we are seeing this tension playing out on both the customer and the retailer side.

Customer empowerment is being devalued by some customers who abuse it, and by some retailers who pay lip service to it to increase their margin.

An SME can sustain a free returns policy if customers genuinely only use it when a product is unsuitable. When people start using it regularly to ‘borrow’ a new outfit for that party, or to compare how three different sideboards look in the lounge before returning two of them, the cost can become a real problem.  Similarly, customers who use the threat of a bad review to get a better deal can start to seriously erode profit margins.

On the retailer side, we see vendors flooding Amazon with bogus reviews, offering inducements to customers to give positive feedback, or putting customer facing staff in the embarrassing position of having to ask a customer for a perfect rating to protect their salary or even their job.

I recently bought some tyres through an online vendor who uses local franchisees to fit them. I chose a particular franchisee on the vendor website because my partner had used and liked them in the past, and because the vendor website had a total of over 60 reviews for that fitter, all of them 4 or 5 star.

Unfortunately, I found my own my experience was very disappointing, so I posted a negative review on the vendor website. Last time I looked, it still just had those 60-odd positive reviews and not a trace of mine.

And we see platforms like Facebook and Tripadvisor inevitably moving further from their roots as social platforms as they face the relentless drive to monetise and keep monetising. Facebook’s trials in this space are well documented; less sensationally, it’ll be interesting to see how just far Tripadvisor will move towards being just another travel services aggregator and Viator selling platform.

Just as social media has spawned the phenomenon of fake news, I believe we risk customer empowerment turning into just another marketing trick.

So what should we do?

To an extent, I think we have to accept there will always be a tension between customer intimacy and the imperative to keep selling more stuff, and continually adjust and evolve to keep them in the best balance we can.

But there’s also stuff going on now which I think is unsustainable unless businesses start thinking beyond the five star customer reviews and the ubiquitous feedback request.

We’re starting to see some unwieldy trust spirals spring up. First we had Amazon reviews, then the robots got in on the act and we had to have ‘verified purchase’ reviews, then some of those got a bad reputation so we needed websites to tell me which product reviews I could trust; next I guess we’ll have the websites to tell us which of the websites telling us which Amazon reviews to trust we can trust. How long can we go on like that?

Or, if I end up in a standoff with my Uber driver because we’re both scared that either of us could be barred by the other’s bad review, I may be an empowered customer but I’m certainly not a happy one.

Which brings me back to my old fogey view that we need to put some mutual respect and trust back into these transactions.

I’m sure we can all think of some of our business relationships which already have this, where mutual understanding and satisfaction makes star ratings and reviews redundant.

Unfortunately, these relationships tend to be small scale, local, face to face and at a price point which is easily undercut by the big guys.

Our received wisdom is that our eCommerce interactions are on a different scale and basis; even if I love Amazon, they’re never going to ask me how my daughter is doing and I’m never going to send them a Christmas card.

Yet I believe technology offers us the capability to bring eCommerce vendors and customers at least a bit closer.

Blockchain technology has already enabled creation of tight, ethically based supply chains, albeit on a small scale. Ever more intelligent chatbots offer potential for customers to have more detailed, sensible and mutually beneficial conversations with merchants.

Using technology to build more effective, trusted and mature customer relationships is not ideal. Getting to know your customer face to face, as a person rather than a punter or a prospect, is still the most effective customer retention strategy,

The right application of technology, though, can give us a pretty good second best, if we put the right customer service ethos behind it.

Using technology to engage effectively first, and sell second, can help take us beyond the flimsy ‘five stars means you love me’ lip service to robust, mutually respectful relationships between eCommerce vendors and their customers.

As a child of the 60s, having a personal customer service avatar with whom who I can discuss the many finer points of ‘The West Wing’ may freak me out a bit, but it’s an exponentially better way to empower me than ‘please give us five minutes to complete this short survey.’

I think that’s a goal worth pursuing in 2019.

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