Should customers be in control?

As social media evolves, I’ve been wondering if the adages we all know still apply. I wrote a post a couple weeks ago about turning the adages upside down; one I left out was “customers are in control.” But should they be?

Over the years, companies have taken heat for customer-unfriendly actions:

  • A decade ago, I was at Fidelity during a communications crisis called “Basic-Gate.”
  • Sprint fired some customers.
  • Ford let out the legal dogs on a brand fan in the “Ranger Station” situation.

But at Fidelity, the customers encouraged to switch channels were more likely to ask about the weather than for a stock quote. Sprint’s customers weren’t very different. And after the social media mob calmed down, the truth about the Ford situation emerged.

You may have even heard of the situation where a conference attendee requested free shoes from a Crocs brand representative otherwise she threatened to defame the brand on her blog.

Recently, Powered’s Joseph Jaffe highlighted a comment from Ad Age about Nestle’s Facebook situation. It takes an alternate point of view to common brand advice, which I’ll excerpt here:

“NOW, in a day when the kids all have megaphones and a sense of unassailable entitlement, the new social order is that when one of them lights a bag of dog sh*t on the [brand’s] front porch, the [brand] is supposed to proclaim what a funny little kid he is…If [the brand] doesn’t respond this way, [it’s] a dinosaur who doesn’t get it.”

I think the confusion comes into play where individual voices are mistaken for customer voices. When you dig down into the root of Nestle’s issue for example, it’s revealed that an organized protest lies at the heart of the matter. Then often, the echo chamber rushes in and magnifies the issues. And it’s all individuals making the noise, looking like an apparent customer revolt when in fact the brand hasn’t lost control at all – it’s still dealing with the same detractors as usual, new channel.

In fact, putting customers in control is the solution to this issue. How? By creating customer advocates, brands have supporters that can defuse issues in social media often before the corporation has time to mobilize. And brands create advocates via positive experiences that play out in a fair value exchange between institution and individual. Lesson: all customers are individuals, but not vice versa. The distinction is important!

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  1. This is an evolving art.

    I think companies (like Nestle) need to have a differentiated understanding of their various constituencies. There are people who care about the stock price, people who care about food, people who care about the environment, people who care about labor rights, etc. They are not all the same people, and should not be communicated with/responded to in the same way via the same channels.

    Using SM analysis you can actually build out this differentiated understanding of the issues, motivations, drivers and linguistics for each constituency. Better to know this before you start to respond.

    Tom O’Brien
    MotiveQuest LLC

  2. I can’t help but liken your premise to the cyberbullying being experienced by children in the school system. Where you once had detractors abusing you or defaming your character in isolation or small groups ~ you now can experience social obliteration in the time it takes to launch a carefully crafted text or tweet.

    As you’ve mentioned with ‘all customers are individuals but not vice versa’ ~ this plays out in social bullying too. The bully(s) appears to have all the power, the victim(s) appears to have no voice, hope or leg to stand on ~ and the bystanders hold the true power to turn the situation around.

    Thank you for getting me thinking today Peter!

  3. Customers should be in control of customers. They should buy or not buy brands. They should recommend or pan brands — as they see fit, as they always have. Social media provides consumers with new broadcast-able tools for their voices. Companies must be attuned to the tools and have strategies for their use. (Nestle needed a strategy and didn’t have one.)

    That said, customers should “not” be in control of brands as some quotable CMOs contend. It makes for good copy but it’s pop marketing and it’s lazy. Some are using social media as a cheap substitute for consumer research which is a recipe for disaster. Listen to consumers, yes. Learn from them, yes. Don’t cede control.

  4. If customers were really in control, businesses would give product away for free, eat the cost of replacement on items that have the slightest defect or dissatisfactory element. It wouldn’t drive profitability…

    Aren’t we really talking about giving the customer a sense of control, in a day where they have highly public outlets for expression?

    In my opinion, the companies that do this best have a really proactively designed, cross channel customer experience that is designed to take prospects and customers – regardless of the access point – through an experience that satiates need and slightly exceeds expectations.

    Pranksters and Sheisters (Customer Bullies) aside, most people want to feel recognized, valued, sufficiently “heard” and they need a sense of closure when they have an issue. Companies that do this, and offer oustanding experiences (pre-sale, sale, use of product, post-sale) generally have a higher ratio of advocates vs. detractors. These advocates can help neutralize the voices of the louder “fringe” detractors.

    On the other hand, companies with crap customer experience face the risk of a public flogging… and perhaps rightfully so! It is most certainly true that the increased visibility into the negative underbelly of brands may better enable customers to bring down the weak players in any given market.

    Just my .02 cents, hastily submitted. Thanks, Peter!

  5. Which is why administrators and other officials are now trying to publicize bullying issues and encouraging others to speak out. Brands have a similar role to play in their own defense. Great analogy!

  6. I like the term “customer bullies” (but I don’t like actual customer bullies). I see the potential for a matrix here and how brands should deal with them…thanks for the thoughts!

  7. Your distinction – all customers are individuals, but not vice versa – is indeed vital to understanding the social media universe. Well said.

    I tried to tackle a similar topic from another angle a while ago: In that example, I’d see SWA employees on equal footing as paying passengers vis-a-vis advocacy and responsibility for a good experience.

    In my experience, true customers [brand ambassadors] often mitigate any issues of assumed ‘control’ initiated by otherwise unaffiliated individuals.

    @tomob makes a solid point too: if a brand is trying to respond to an individual or customer concern, a copy/paste methodology of messaging is tantamount to ignoring the issue in the first place.

  8. The expression “rules of engagement” comes to mind. Since it is the brand that has won the right to serve the market, it is the brand’s responsibility to define all the important constituencies and coordinate their distinction.
    If Toyota had made this a priority they would have realized just how big this quality problem was already, and not “potentially”.
    Individuals aside, the customers generally want the brand in charge. That’s the point of a solid brand, isn’t it?

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