Marketing at a Crossroads: The Importance of Customer Fairness


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Marketing is currently at a crossroads. Customer trust in marketers & their marketing is at all all-time low. Customers don’t believe what marketers say, but are still disappointed when their marketing’s promises are not fulfilled. Engagement with brands and response rates are falling, at the same time as more money is spent on marketing. And the CMO now has one of the shortest tenures as a board member.

Marketing faces a number of choices for the future directions it can take. One direction is to do more of the same: more branded marketing, more cost, more broken promises, more disappointment, more rotation at the top. Unbelievably, a few companies will take this barren path.

Another direction is more precise targeted marketing. With ever larger databases, more powerful decision engines and careful targeting of messages to customers through virtual media. Some marketers are already doing this. For example, mobile telcos have long targeted customers for retention, save and winback depending upon the strength of their relationship and how near they are to the end of their contracts. Many companies are already taking this path. And it works very well. But it is not enough. It still treats the customer as a target rather than as a, dare I say it, a person.

Missing from both of these approaches is recognition that customers are people. With all the cognitive and emotional baggage that brings with it. A McKinsey Quarterly article Exploring Business’s Social Contract: An Interview with Daniel Yankelovich highlights the problem; customer trust in companies is falling. It currently lies at 28%, lower even than in the immediate aftermath of the Enron scandal. And it is still falling. A big part of the problem lies in the unfair treatment that many customers receive at the hands of marketers: better offers for non-customers than for loyal ones, bundled products that force customers to buy stuff they don’t want, rotten customer service after the sale, small print with sometimes illegal restrictions and a general unwillingness to treat the customer fairly.

But precisely because customers are people, they frequently react to being treated unfairly with immediate anger and a long-term desire to get even. A case in point: I was practically accused of fraud by a BMW dealership in Köln because they were too incompetent to account for the credit card payment I had made after having my car serviced. I had to prove to them that I had made the payment. They never apologised. It happened again when I had my next service. I complained in writing to the dealership, copied to BMW in München. I never heard from them. From this point on, the BMW brand meant arrogance, service incompetence and a total lack of humanity. It still does, more than 15 years later!

Yankelovich suggests that part of the answer to this falling level of trust is for companies to supplement the obvious question, “is this good for shareholders?”, with the question, “is this good for society?”. The equivalent for marketers is to supplement the question, “will this achieve a strong ROI?”, with the question, “is this good for customers?”. But marketers just asking the question of themselves is not enough. They also need to monitor the broader perceptions that customers have about their marketing and the impact it has the reputation of their company. They also need to develop measures that reflect the risk that inappropriate or badly executed marketing carries. I have talked about measures like Customer Value at Risk previously on the CustomerThink Think Tank.

Until we start to ask these questions and to measure the true health of customers’ relationships with companies, we should not be surprised if marketing winds up going in the wrong direction.

What do you think? Should companies just smile and carry on regardless? Or should they start treating the customer as a person?

Post a response and get the conversation going.

Graham Hill

Graham Hill (Dr G)
Business Troubleshooter | Questioning | Thoughtful | Industrious | Opinions my own | Connect with me on LinkedIn


  1. I completely agree with you that we should stop “marketing” and add “soul” to our conversations with customers.Customers today are getting a lot smarter and they see through marketers’ devious messaging strategies.

    It’s important to treat customers as people and not as targets or segments to exploit!

    Even jargons like crm/relationship marketing are treated as a set of ‘activities’ or processes that will build loyalty or relationships with customers. It baffles me a lot.

    We have to remember, as individuals we don’t build relationships with other people overnight. We take time to understand each other, evaluate each other for sometime and then start to like or dislike one another. So is the case with brands. When you want to build strong relationships you have to be honest, transparent and truthful.

    Marketing too has to do the same, if it wants to remain relevant in the future.

  2. I use Expedia a lot when I book air travel, in the US and internationally. But, there’s a problem, it doesn’t include Southwest, my favorite airline for shorter trips around western US.

    So, I type in and book the flight directly with them.

    Why? Because Southwest is fair. If I book early, I get a better deal, but even last minute bookings have reasonable pricing. By contrast, other major airlines have a *much* higher spread between the discounted fares and the last-minute full fares.

    Said another way, the others take advantage of the situation. Southwest never leaves me feeling screwed. I feel the same way about jetBlue, which I use whenever possible for coast-to-coast flights.

    Now, is this the fault of the marketers? Maybe. But perhaps it’s a symptom of a more general culture within companies, when customers are targets, not people. Marketers simply behave in a way that fits the culture.

    And who sets the culture? The CEO. Customer fairness must start at the top, not in the marketing organization.

    Bob Thompson, CustomerThink Corp.
    Blog: Unconventional Wisdom

  3. Sivaraman, Bob

    Thanks for your comments. They are much appreciated

    In return, I want to ask an open question: Is culture set by the CEO as Bob suggests, or is it bottom-up, driven by how work gets done by ordinary staff.

    My money is on the latter. As we discover more about the networked nature of organisational life, we are coming to recognise that culture is in fact an emergent phenomenon driven by the myriad of interactions between people going about everyday life in the complex adaptive system of business. Sure, the CEO can promote a desired culture and put a culture change programme into place to achieve it, but if staff don’t want to change and are not ‘willingly forced’ to do so, then the result is a cultural dog’s dinner and the deserved exit of the CEO. Sooner or later.

    Perhaps it is time to recognise that most CEOs are not there to bring law & order to the business wild west, but instead, to motivate their management & staff to get that new widget out to market more quickly than competitors.

    Graham Hill

  4. In our company we go to extremes to provide genuine personal service by people who honestly care about the customer and their needs. We have consistently gone the extra twenty miles to deliver what the customers need, when they need it. However, what is most telling is the lack of loyalty from most consumers. We have lost business over pennies on a sale simply because price has become more important that service. Some of our competitors are known in our industry for having rotten customer service yet the consumer will buy from them, expecting to get terrible customer service simply to save a few pennies.

    It is frustrating when you work so hard to provide superior service to your customers who will gladly tell you how great your service is only to buy from your competitors. There is more blame to pass around than just that directed to the marketers. Relationships work both ways.

    Don Hill


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