Customer focus is an enduring and fundamental principle of business. The logic goes that success will follow if you identify and solve customer problems, use them to build new products or services, and create strong relationships. But the truth is that customers can be a dreadful guide, and new technology means it is an idea that may have had its day.
There are a number of aspects to this. Customer-centrism can have negative implications for creativity. An over-obsession with customer feedback is time consuming, and can stifle innovation in search of consensus. For example, brands that pay too much attention to focus groups are often criticised by automotive journalists for producing bland cars. And it’s not restricted to the corporate world: former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was reported to have been racked with indecision brought on by his following of public opinion polls.
Prioritising customers also risks overlooking potentially valuable input from the shop floor or supply chain. Employees can become demotivated by perceived imbalance. The large number of us who do or have worked in retail will almost certainly have horror stories to share of arrogant and aggressive customers who make already difficult jobs that much less pleasant.
All too often the modern service economy treats (and pays) the employee as if they are a downstairs domestic, with the customer cast as the dowager duchess. Lost enthusiasm, missed ideas and even resistance strategies may emerge. Residents for example, who tired of hosting tourists, hassle, treat rudely and even lobby for their departure. Research has long noted the varied ways in which local populations can react to and undermine tourism. Ironically these impacts undermine the customer experience, as they disrupt wider business strategy.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is to the well-being of customers themselves. Overly entitled customers can actually become more difficult to satisfy. The increase in narcissistic traits among individuals since the turn of the millennium has been highlighted by a number of researchers. The self-absorption, attention seeking and superiority complexes make these unpleasant people to be around. Pity the supermarket checkout staff or hotel receptionist who has to deal with them.
The trouble is, no amount of obsequious indulgence is likely to make them happy. On the contrary, the narcissist must indulge in ever more grandiose behaviour to make up for their fundamental lack of self-worth and loneliness. Freud linked consumption to ego building, and it is easy to see how shopping can be used to reinforce narcissistic narratives: displaying success, wealth and power through luxury brands.
By overly prioritising the individual customer and flattering their ego in pursuit of a relationship, we risk fostering this unhealthy client narcissism. Rather than being told they are extraordinary, what most people really want is a sense of community and belonging. Community is of course rooted in healthy relationships and exchanges, and fragmented by inequality and superficiality: as the 2013 Gini report for the UK reveals in detail on a national level.
A rebalancing of customer relationships, and their inclusion in a wider pool of feedback from all those with a stake in a business, brand or product, would appear to offer benefits to all concerned. We would end up with less slavish business marketing, increased employee satisfaction, customers with more realistic expectations. An excellent response by a York teahouse to a negative customer review made online, explaining in depth their need to charge £2 for a glass of water, illustrates how a two, rather than one way dynamic, benefits all.
It sounds simple, but in the last decade, managers have instead been scrambling to understand another dramatic assault on business-customer relationships: social media.
Twitter, Facebook and others have revolutionised how the two sides interact. It is now a genuine two-way, participatory and co-created process. Whereas previously only the most dedicated, time rich or cranky might bother to write into a postal address located in the small print on the back of a carton, now anybody can make their voice heard at the click of a button. Meanwhile, rating websites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor provide a platform for peer review and hold significant influence over consumer decision making.
Many more people are now involved far more easily. While this has obvious advantages for business in terms of generating research data and establishing relationships, the expansion of social media has handed much power to the consumer and they are not afraid to use it.
Brands live in a state of nervous tension; trying to anticipate any potential misunderstandings that might have them trending up the Facebook sidebar in the latest PR disaster nightmare. Remember US Airways' accidental pornographic tweet and shudder.
Social media may be linked to that idea of a self-obsessed generation. And it certainly helps to generate unrealistic expectations, which even the most careful customer service is unlikely to satisfy. It then also provides a platform for venting those disappointments. By consistently telling customers they are special, brands have likely added fuel to this unhealthy normalisation of narcissism and are now exposed, along with their frontline employees, to the capriciousness of modern consumers.
Nobody benefits from being in a dysfunctional relationship, and customer-centrism looks like an unproductive business model for everyone. A better balance is struck by mutual respect and responsibility, rather than subservience; equal consideration of all stakeholders rather than prioritisation of some over others. At its core this requires an acknowledgement that the customer isn’t always right. It is a stronger business which accepts this and a healthier consumer who is confronted by it. But it will be a brave brand which stakes out this position in the brutal social media landscape.