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!