Social Media Makes Customers More Powerful? Not On Your Life


Share on LinkedIn

Picture of food

I Can’t Believe There’s No Spinach Here! Look Under Those Red Things, Oilive

There’s been a lot of talk, not surprisingly occurring on sites like Twitter about how social media is and will shift the balance of power from the company to the customer. On Twitter, mind you, it’s almost impossible to figure out what people mean by this, and attempts to try to get clarification usually go unanswered or worse, garner repetition instead of thoughtful response. A product of 140 character limits what can be said as does the simplicity of the Twitterite mind.

We can deal with the general issue, though, and perhaps some of the more wishful thinkers may step in through comments. I should add that there is a chapter on just this topic in my new book on social media, which is entitled “Giving the Business To Social Media – Hope, Hype, Reality“. and should be available end of 2010.

The comments about the Popeye powerful customers seem to have to do with the claim that social media will somehow make things more transparent, and that companies won’t be able to hide things from customers. Never do those that make this claim describe the mechanism for this from beginning to end, which suggests they don’t really know.

What has always been hidden — the innards of the black opaque box of each company, will be no more visible than before. I suppose a disgruntled employee could conceivably have access to more audience members during the era of social media, but in fact, that breakthrough happened over ten years ago. The Internet already allowed such exposure.

The other point on the side of the Popeye powerful customer, or so it’s claimed, is that companies can no longer disregard complaints because they are and can be made in public. It’s true that now it is easier to complain in public. I came across one person who was so enraged with HP that she set up a Twitter account just to attack HP and broadcast her complaint. She even had a few followers, and once in a while someone would post a “Yeah, I’m with you” tweet. Of course nothing happened. HP hasn’t budged, and I might add they receive a lot of bad social media press from customers. Presumably the woman finally tired of spending her time doing this. Now THAT’S POWER.

The truth is that the claims of customer power are based on false assumptions. Here’s a few.

  1. That a single customer can garner enough support to create a pressure groups of sufficient size, commitment and strength to affect the decisions of a multi-national company. That’s false. Even a small group of customers cannot, and we have ample evidence that companies targeted for complaints simply don’t often change anything. Are there exceptions? Might be. One. Maybe?
  2. That people care enough to join in, and actually DO something besides tweet. They don’t. Not only do they not care that I didn’t get satisfaction from a computer company, beyond the first day, but if I hyper focus on it, it’s not the company that suffers, it would be me. Single focus bitching? Nobody wants to hear it. Seriously.
  3. The Popeye fellas believe that comments made on social media can cause enough people to change their behavior in “the real world” to make a difference. Not going to happen as a general case. Readers may experience a temporary feeling of fellowship upon reading that a fellow customer has also been screwed, and potential customers may actually pay attention for a moment, but here’s the thing. Comments by complete strangers do not really translate into strong changes in buying behavior. People say they do when asked, but as soon as a good deal comes along, or it’s more convenient, most people, even who have felt indignant, conveniently forget their solidarity.

Personally as a consumer I want more power. I’d like the company who made the laptop that failed one month after warranty to have done the right thing by me, and replaced the machine, rather than offering to fix it for more than I paid. Really. I’d have loved for thousands of Popeye’s to have descended upon the company to force them to stand by their products. Really. Nobody did. Ok. A few of us commiserated on Twitter and found we had similar experiences. That was it. We move on. We moved on.

These predictions are amazingly naive, truth to tell, because they don’t take into account the psychology of things and how people actually behave. This one is dead wrong. I wish it was different. I doubt it.

Interested in comments. This is a rather short treatment of the subject, but there will be a chapter dealing with this far more extensively in the new book, since this issue has strong action implications for business.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Robert Bacal
Robert began his career as an educator and trainer at the age of twenty (which is over 30 years ago!), as a teaching assistant at Concordia University. Since then he as trained teachers for the college and high school level, taught at several universities and trained thousands of employees and managers in customer service, conflict management and performance appraisal and performance management skills.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here