No, This is Not the Age of the Customer


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Astrologers peg the Age of Aquarius between 1447 and 3597 CE – a range of 2,150 years, give or take. The Age of Enlightenment happened in Europe in the 18th century, around the same time as the emergence of the industrial age. And so far, all my life experiences have happened during the information and digital ages. I can’t quibble with any of these age appellations.

Forrester has anointed our current time as the Age of the Customer. As Forrester explains it, “In this era, digitally-savvy customers would change the rules of business, creating extraordinary opportunity for companies that could adapt, and creating existential threat to those that could not.”

Here, I demur. Forrester could just as easily have been describing Facebook, Google, and Amazon as the ones changing the rules. Sure, as a consumer, I have demanded – and received – improved vendor responsiveness, better information for making decisions, and, thanks to disintermediation, fewer buying hassles.

But I never asked for many things I had to put up with along the way: being required to register for “loyalty programs” to transact refunds, channeled to chat sessions to resolve services issues, or forced to parse off-topic FAQ’s for the same purpose. “If I could have just talked to someone, this would have been fixed an hour ago,” I grumble.

I never asked for onerous subscription commitments, prohibitively high termination fees, take-it-all bundled services when I really needed just one thing, and incessant product promotions I didn’t want in the first place – many of which I can’t squelch no matter how hard I try. And I certainly never expected to irretrievably relinquish my personal privacy. Where did it go, and to whom? I can’t say for sure. But there’s a data scientist or two out there who can.

So, did vendors adapt to customer needs, or did customers adapt to theirs? Did digitally-savvy customers change the rules of business, or did business change the rules for customers? Questions to ponder next time you perfunctorily click through the I agree box confirming your acceptance of the vendor’s terms, conditions, and disclaimers, or when you neglect to opt out of receiving marcomm. It might come to mind when you’re slapped with a monthly fee for a service you were supposed to remember to terminate after the “free” trial period expired.

The Age of the Customer carries meaning that doesn’t comport with reality. Depending on what you read, the proclamation suggests that customers have power almost to the point of omnipotence. Proponents of The Age of the Customer conjure images of consumers as relentlessly demanding, and laud supplicant vendors that “go the extra mile” to support their demands and whims. Yeah, right! – that’s how my cable company and my cell phone provider must see it, too.

As a result, The Age of the Customer has created hysteria about optimizing the customer experience. This storyline extends boundlessly: customers keep gaining muscularity, extracting their power from the hides of once-hegemonic vendors who have little recourse but to give them more, and more, and more. It’s no longer enough to satisfy customers, they must be delighted! And being customer-centric is tepid compared to being customer obsessed. We’re victims of our own hype. No matter how sensible the approach to customer strategy, people feel compelled to amp it up. I get it. Telling Type-A CXO’s that they are sub-Extreme shoots precious adrenaline into their bloodstreams, and sells a lot of software and billable hours.

Buttressing the Age of the Customer claim is the fact that information has become democratized, granting customers newfound capabilities and new advantages. At the same time, vendors have used the explosion of consumer data to innovate positive ways to satisfy customer needs that were not even conceivable a decade or two ago. All true. In many ways, things are better for customers.

But it’s a gross distortion of reality. Here’s why:

1. Major new customer risks. Gains in customer power have not come without customers absorbing unprecedented risks. Greater information also means greater misinformation, and customers often struggle to distinguish the two. We must be constantly vigilant for phishing schemes. List brokers profit in selling customer data to help marketers identify the most motivated (read: vulnerable) customers. Most troubling are risks to preserving our personal privacy, in greater peril now than at any time in history. Our actions, locations, thoughts, voices, facial images, conversations, and social networks are meticulously captured, recorded, and stored. “We are the pawns,” wrote Shoshanna Zuboff in her book, Surveillance Capitalism .

2. Uneven benefits. Paraphrasing George Orwell, all customers are equal, but some customers are more equal than others. Just as experience improves for one customer segment, it deteriorates for another. If you’ve flown recently, you know what I mean. My go-to airline knows all too well who is a high-value customer, and who isn’t. Profits mean you can’t treat everyone the same way, you know.

According to a review of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil, “the [algorithmic] models being used today are opaque, unregulated, and uncontestable, even when they’re wrong. Most troubling, they reinforce discrimination: If a poor student can’t get a loan because a lending model deems him too risky (by virtue of his zip code), he’s then cut off from the kind of education that could pull him out of poverty, and a vicious spiral ensues. Models are propping up the lucky and punishing the downtrodden, creating a ‘toxic cocktail for democracy.’ Welcome to the dark side of Big Data.”

3. Disproportionate power flowing to vendors. “Originally intent on organizing all human knowledge, Google ended up controlling all access to it; we do the searching, and are searched in turn. Setting out merely to connect us, Facebook found itself in possession of our deepest secrets. And in seeking to survive commercially beyond their initial goals, these companies realized they were sitting on a new kind of asset: our ‘behavioral surplus’, the totality of information about our every thought, word and deed, which could be traded for profit in new markets based on predicting our every need – or producing it. In a move of such audacity that it bears comparison to the enclosure of the commons or colonial conquests, the tech giants unilaterally declared that these previously untapped resources were theirs for the taking, and brushed aside every objection,” wrote James Bridle in a February, 2019 review of Zuboff’s book.

Sure, I don’t have to be loyal to any vendor, unless, of course, I’m forced. I can order stuff online with a mouse click or two. I can instantly uncover the lowest price for a pair of Allbirds shoes, purchase them, and have them delivered to my home in 24 hours – all from the comfort of my couch. This is great. Twenty years ago, I had to expend a lot more effort. But in that same period, vendors have amassed far greater power.

Fast forward to the year 2070. A college professor is teaching a class titled Sociology and Business. “As you can see on this timeline, the early 2000’s is commonly referred to as The Age of the Customer . . .” he tells his class. He barely completes his sentence when a young woman in the back of the lecture hall raises her hand and says, “I checked just now and see that during that period, we experienced a global opioid crisis that killed almost 400,000 Americans between 1999 and 2017. A lot of it had to do with the marketing practices of one manufacturer, Purdue Pharma. Would the families of those victims and their descendants agree with your statement?”

She continued without waiting for the answer. “During what you call the Age of the Customer, Volkswagen duped customers around the world with a massive emissions scandal. Wells Fargo executives got caught in a huge fraud that went on for more than a decade. They cheated their customers and ruined their credit. They screwed over their employees. General Motors concealed an ignition defect that killed – killed! – 124 customers and injured 274. Equifax failed to protect its databases. They got hacked and didn’t tell people at first. 146 million people were affected. Their personal information got spilled to God knows where. Facebook did all kinds of unethical stuff with their customer data, and even sold it to companies helping the Russians manipulate the US election in 2016 when Trump got elected!

“My Grandpa graduated from college in 2012 and found he couldn’t pay his student loan for a while when he was unemployed. His loan service provider advised him to go into forbearance, and his interest charges skyrocketed. Later he found out he didn’t have to do it that way.” “Why didn’t he just switch providers? In The Age of the Customer, couldn’t everyone get lots more choices and better deals?” a classmate asked. “He wasn’t allowed to,” she said. “He was stuck – the terms of the loan restricted him to one company. He spent his entire working life paying off his college debt.” She dabbed at her eyes.

“None of this adds up,” she said. “Back in the early 2000’s, CEO’s mostly worried about maximizing shareholder value. That has never correlated with customer-centric decision making. Income inequality sucked the buying power out of the American middle class, making them less powerful. I don’t get it. How was this period The Age of the Customer?” She paused to catch her breath. Murmurs erupted around the classroom. Most of the students had never heard of the companies she mentioned, or the incidents she described.

Then she quoted author Jonathan Swift from the book Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726. “. . . honesty has no defense against superior cunning . . . where fraud is permitted and connived at, or has no law to punish it, the honest dealer is always undone, and the knave gets the advantage.”

“So here are my questions,” she said. “First, based on everything we now know, how can we reflect on that time and believe customers were dominant? Doesn’t the Age of the Customer proclamation seem grandiose?” And second, since Swift’s description is as relevant today as it was in 1726, will we ever truly see The Age of the Consumer?

Taken aback at first, the professor answered with aplomb. “You have a point. Maybe at the time, people were simply caught up in the moment. You know, influenced by buzz and hype. Perhaps calling that time the Age of the Customer reflected optimism and hope, not reality.”


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