Why It is Unethical to Promote ‘Convenience’

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A few months ago, Bob Azman, the former chairman of the board of CXPA, published an article: Is Social Responsibility a Part of Your CX Strategy? In response, Contrary Domino’s managing principal Andrew Rudin commented: “We’re dealing with the fallout from Milton Friedman’s essay titled, The Social Responsibility of a Business Is to Increase its Profits. It’s what I was taught as an undergraduate, and I don’t remember much debate over it. It was the ’70’s, and the term CSR hadn’t entered the conversation.”

That prompted me to write this article.

Do you have real estate?

Since the millennium, the average UK property value has trebled. The cost of a home in 1999 stood at around £91,000, compared to £279,000 in 2019.

The phenomenon of not being able to afford housing is ubiquitous. According to UBS’s 2019 Global Real Estate Bubble Index, here’s how long it takes the average skilled worker to buy a 650-square-foot apartment in some of the biggest cities in the world:

  • 11 years: New York, Tokyo and Tel Aviv
  • 12 years: Singapore
  • 14 years: London
  • 15 years: Paris
  • 21 years: Hong Kong

Due to the stagnation of real wages for decades and the crazy rise in asset prices such as real estate, especially driven by the quantitative easing policy that began in 2008, for those who have no assets (for example, the lower middle-class and the working class), the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened sharply.

What is the tax rate you pay?

In April, Forbes announced that Jeff Bezos has remained the world’s richest person for the fourth consecutive year. If Bezos were a country, he would be the 56th richest country; his wealth exceeds the combined GDP of the poorest 48 countries.

Last year, CBS News reported that Amazon’s tax rate in 2019 was only 1.2%, while the average American tax rate was 14%. Even more shocking is that this figure (1.2%) is Amazon’s highest figure from 2017 to 2019, and the company’s total profit in the United States in these three years reached US$30.1 billion. (Note: The average tax rate for Fortune 500 companies is 11.3%.)

Unsurprisingly, earning huge profits at extremely low tax rates can enhance Amazon’s financial strength in building an online empire and help provide irresistible offers.

Who can resist Prime?

Amazon Prime is a paid subscription program. It offers immense value to members, including free delivery, exclusive rewards and discounts. JPMorgan estimated that the $119 Prime annual fee is actually worth $785.

This irresistible plan entices subscribers to spend more money and ultimately indulge in shopping on Amazon. Based on Convey’s survey, the top 3 reasons people shop at Amazon is ‘fast, free shipping’ (73%), followed by ‘I am an Amazon Prime member’ (67%) and ‘easy and convenient purchase process’ (58%). On the report of Clarus Commerce, Prime’s members spend almost five times that of non-members.

What’s more, Prime’s global membership is growing exponentially. In its annual letter to shareholders in April 2021, Bezos stated that the number of members has doubled from 100 million to 200 million in just three years. Amazon’s train is unstoppable.

Is instant pleasure everything?

But while numerous customers are loyal to Amazon in transactions, many of them are not emotionally loyal. Some of them don’t even like or may even hate Amazon and try to stop buying from them. Customers are deeply worried about monopolization, worker exploitation and privacy intrusion. However, “instant pleasure” has still prevailed and won.

According to Statista, Amazon’s market share of the U.S. e-commerce retail market:

  • 2016: 34%
  • 2017: 37%
  • 2018: 41%
  • 2019: 45%
  • 2020: 47%
  • 2021: 50% (projected)

Numbers don’t lie. There is no doubt that many customers may not like the status quo. But because customers (regardless of age) are addicted to Amazon’s effortless experience and irresistible offers, and can’t find any close substitutes, they become slaves to convenience.

What is the Internet?

In the 2018 U.S. Congress hearing on the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal, an 84-year-old senator asked Mark Zuckerberg: “If [a version of Facebook will always be free], how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Zuckerberg replied: “Senator, we run ads.” The senator’s peers also raised similar questions. Instead of being grilled, Facebook CEO confidently gave a lecture to legislators on how Facebook makes money and how the Internet works.

Notwithstanding lawmakers may be out of touch with the Internet world, this does not mean nothing is being done. For instance, in 2021, the Australian parliament passed the world-first law aimed at making digital giants like Google pay local publishers for news content; the UK Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers should be classified as “workers” and not “self-employed”; EU leaders agreed in principle to impose a digital service tax (DST) on the world’s technology giants.

However, given that these issues have existed for more than a decade, relatively little progress has been made. In addition, we cannot underestimate the counterattack and lobbying power of the tech giants. Yes, we should always remain optimistic but we should also be realistic: government antitrust regulations as well as corresponding legal and tax reforms may help, but they are slow, weak and unreliable.

Whose voice should you listen to?

Covid-19 has accelerated the trend of people shopping via the Internet. When customers buy online, they want it to be “fast and easy.” The CX industry has been tirelessly advocating effortless experience; now it makes even more sense to do so.

On the other hand, tech giants like Amazon have an absolute advantage over any other company in terms of technology, logistics and infrastructure in providing an effortless experiences. As a result, when customers became slaves to convenience, most money flowed into the pockets of tech giants, and income inequality increased.

We have a dilemma here. Income inequality is one of the most concerning issues for everyone (including customers); and “fast and easy” is an important need of customers. However, promoting effortless experiences will help drive income inequality. The million-dollar question is: Should CX listen narrowly to the voice of its customers and ignore the broader voice of citizens or the people?

What’s the right thing to do?

Make no mistake. I am not suggesting that we boycott Amazon. I am not so naïve and unrealistic to think that the CX industry alone can change the customer’s need for “fast and easy.” But maybe we should stop and think about whether we should continue to promote effortless experience that will exacerbate income inequality.

You wear three hats. You are a business professional, as well as a citizen and customer. These are thorny questions: Should we only meet the most critical needs of our customers and ignore the social impact it brings? Or, let me put it this way: Is it ethical to satisfy the most critical needs of customers while harming the interests of most citizens and people? Are customer needs more important than people’s pain? Should we take social responsibility and stop advocating effortless experience?

Things that once seemed right, such as “The Social Responsibility of a Business Is to Increase its Profits,” may now be wrong. Is it still correct to promote ‘convenience’?

13 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Sampson, Thanks for such a thought provoking article.

    The gap between those at the top (against whatever criteria you choose) and middle income workers has grown dramatically and is well documented. The clear and evident widening inequality is arguably a major cause of the social disruption and loss of trust in big business and our political institutions that we have seen over the last 20 years.

    The question you are posing Sampson is whether big tech businesses such as Amazon, Facebook and Uber, with their record of questionable practices regarding taxation, workers rights and the exercise of monopoly power are right to ignore their social responsibility because customers have not shown – by taking their business elsewhere – that they care. As you say, convenience has trumped social concern in the case of Amazon, particularly during the Covid pandemic.

    This trend can be seen in other sectors too. In fast fashion, Primark (a few years ago, pre Covid) and more recently the BooHoo Group have been heavily and criticised for their sourcing policies. Despite public criticism, both have seen sector leading growth.

    Research by Accenture showed that 60% of younger consumers consider a company’s ethical values before buying its products. However, it would not seem that the public outcry faced by Primark and Boohoo has significantly changed their customers’ purchasing habits. This expectation – behaviour gap exists because consumers rationalise their choice to buy based on the emotional benefits to them (image, lifestyle, peer recognition etc in the case of fast fashion) which outweigh the more remote benefits (social responsibility).

    So should big tech, fast fashion companies and others care if their consumers don’t?

    I believe the answer is yes. Big companies operating globally need to make a choice about where they stand on the big issues of our day: economic and social equality, human rights, racial justice, climate, sustainability and more. We have already started to see some companies step up. And the changes we have seen are not only altruistic but they are based on self interest. It takes years to build build a brand and a very short time to destroy it. Companies are realising that by being on the wrong side of some of the big issues they risk a potential backlash not only from consumers but from employees too (witness the employee pressure at Amazon and Uber). Balancing the short term pressure for profits with the need to build brand loyalty by navigating the changes in society will be key for companies to thrive in the future.

  2. Hi Sampson: thank you for challenging all of us to think about the ethics of our consumer choices. It’s an important topic that would benefit from more consideration. Since the issue that catalyzed your post was the ethics of providing consumer convenience, I’ll share my thoughts on that.

    In general, companies that do a superior job of fulfilling consumer needs should be allowed to be rewarded in the marketplace. They should not be expected to deliberately curtail or diminish their proprietary advantage simply because they gain benefits that others consider outsized. My position presumes, of course, that benefits are obtained legally. If Amazon’s success results in income inequality as you suggest, then change the laws and regulations that permit the company to pay paltry taxes, and revise tax laws that allow lower rates for capital gains versus earned income. There are many systemic issues contributing to income inequality, and it’s important to tackle and fix the root causes.

    In addition, our culture has long eschewed the notion of having governments and companies acting as ‘nannies’ for protecting consumer interests. While on one hand, we reject the idea that companies should have freedom to market any way they please – as is the case of tobacco companies using cartoon characters to make cigarettes more appealing to children, or vape companies promoting candy-like flavors that minors like to buy – I think it’s wrong to expect Amazon to intentionally make its buying process more onerous because a proportion of their customers might have the tendency to overspend, or to make purchases that they don’t need.

    Sure, you might think of taking the “ethical high road” by dissuading compulsive shoppers much in the same way lottery and other gambling websites might run public service announcements intended to protect gambling addicts from themselves. But by the same logic, should my local Costco restrict the use of large shopping carts, or require customers who enter the store to explain why they might need one, in order to prevent them from over-spending or from buying too much stuff? The blowback from enacting such a policy would be understandably severe. Imagine what customer experiences would be like if most companies began with the premise that their customers were not rational and responsible decision makers.

    Again – thanks for your post. I look forward to learning from the conversation.

  3. Hi John, thanks for your thorough response; I appreciate it.

    You’ve cited two good examples – Primark and BooHoo – customers do care about ethical values, but they are obsessed with ‘convenience’ and have to continue to buy from the large companies that have not fulfilled their social responsibilities. And I agree with your conclusion that “Balancing the short term pressure for profits with the need to build brand loyalty by navigating the changes in society will be key for companies to thrive in the future.” Large technology companies, fast fashion companies, and other companies, for their own benefit, should be concerned about ethical values and social responsibilities, even if their consumers don’t care.

    However, I may have misled you and the reader. In this article, when I say “we,” I’m referring to the CX industry most of the time. For example, “Should we take socially responsible and stop advocating effortless experience?” “We” should read CX Industry. For clarity, its title should be “Why It is Unethical for the CX Industry to Promote ‘Convenience’. Sorry for this misunderstanding. Hope it’s clear now.

    Therefore, while it’s important to discuss whether the tech giants should take social responsibility, my focus is: should the CX industry be socially responsible and stop promoting effortless experience. The rationale is driving an effortless experience by itself does not cause income inequality. However, driving an effortless experience AND the company grows too large (like Amazon) and makes huge profits while paying very little taxes, it will cause income inequality. Since tech giants have an absolute advantage over any other company in providing an effortless experience, and customers are slaves to convenience, when the CX industry continues to promote effortless experience, most money will flow into the pockets of tech giants, and income inequality increases.

    John, in this case, I would like to seek your advice on two issues:

    1) Should the CX industry take social responsibility and stop advocating effortless experience?
    2) What can the CX industry do to influence customers to reduce their obsession with “convenience”?

  4. Hi Andy, thanks. I’ve learned a lot from our previous conversations, and I have high expectations on this one.

    I totally agree with you that a company that meets the needs of customers and receives corresponding rewards, as long as the benefits are legally obtained, there is no problem at all, and it’s also in line with the laws of the free market. And Amazon should continue to provide effortless experience, because this is their brand promise/brand value/jobs-to-be-done of their customers; Amazon doesn’t have to do anything special for those customers who might have the tendency to overspend, or to make purchases that they don’t need. I also agree with you that “dissuading compulsive shoppers” approach won’t work: “The blowback from enacting such a policy would be understandably severe. Imagine what customer experiences would be like if most companies began with the premise that their customers were not rational and responsible decision makers.”

    But I am seriously thinking about whether the CX industry can do anything to help customers stop obsessing with ‘convenience’ without violating the principles of the free market, undermining the company’s autonomy, and not taking any “moral high roads.”

    I may have watched too many American and Korean dramas on Netflix. All parents are willing to give their lives for their children. But when I look around my friends – regardless of their nationality – almost all of them also put their children first. Maybe the drama is not divorced from the real world. If so, can we work towards “selfishness”? For example, focusing to deliver this message: if we continue to indulge in convenience, what kind of world our son or daughter will inherit, and what kind of pain they will suffer. This is not about saving the planet or helping the poor. But about the people we cherish the most in the world.

    And we – parents – are not alone. When social inequality and other things deteriorate to a critical point, even young people may stand up and fight. For example, the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg launched an international campaign to fight climate change, which inspired millions of people around the world to join the protests. When the power of parents and children can be combined, is this one of the possible solutions to the problems we are facing now? Of course, this is too simple. If we think this is a feasible direction, we definitely need to do more thinking and discussion.

    Andy, what do you think of this “parent-child” approach?

  5. Hi Sampson, I did have an inkling that you were referring to the CX industry but I focused on the expectations of customers because it seems to me, their requirements are paramount.
    I don’t see it as the job of CX experts and practitioners to tell customers that convenience should be less important to them that they believe it is. Customers expectations have changed and ESG considerations are becoming more important over time. Convenience will always be important but, on its own it may not be sufficient to drive loyalty.

  6. Hi Sampson: Your question, ” if we continue to indulge in convenience, what kind of world our son or daughter will inherit, and what kind of pain they will suffer?” merits a closer look. My first question is why is convenience an indulgence? All of us who have grown up pre e-commerce understand the benefits of convenient transactions, fast delivery, and responsive customer communication. Similarly, unlike many digital natives today, we are painfully aware of what we trade off for that convenience. For me, it’s privacy and unwillingly instigating the noxious assumption that, based on my placing an order, I crave a “relationship” with the vendor.

    Engineering convenience into transactions of any type provides incalculable benefits not only to buyers and sellers, but to society. They permit entrepreneurs to access markets and buyers they could never otherwise access. They allow those who might not have transportation or physical ability to visit a “bricks-and-mortar” retailer to have products or drugs that not only improve their lives substantially, but could be lifesaving. Far from being an indulgence or frivolity, convenience improves people’s lives.

    At the same time, some convenience has been unquestionably deleterious. The ubiquity of non-nutritious snacks (aka junk food) and single-use packaging has created monumental health and environmental hazards. Cheap, and widely-available fast food, better described as “calories in a bag”, has contributed to high obesity rates around the world. To your point, when you examine the cost to society for convenience, it’s hard to accept the go-to marketing excuse “well, we’re just giving customers what they want!” There’s no honor in not seeing the big picture, or being willfully ignorant of it.

    I don’t have any simple recommendations about how marketers should manage convenience in product purchases. But I think a step in the right direction is asking “could this convenience [innovation/development/improvement/offering] harm our stakeholders? By stakeholders, I mean primarily employees, customers, investors, and communities. If the answer is “yes,” then the next questions should be “How? – and what should we do about it?”

    Could such rigor result in making it harder or less appealing for teens to purchase vape products? Would it reduce number of menu items at fast food restaurants that are patently unhealthy for the human diet? Would it reduce tonnage of single-use plastics that infect our environment? At this time, the answer is unknown, but it’s not unknowable.

    Plastic drink straws are vital for those who are physically compromised. But for many, they’re a frivolous convenience that’s not worth having. There are no easy answers. When it comes to deciding whether a convenience is an indulgence or a vital improvement, we must examine all the angles.

  7. Hi John, thank you for your reply. I agree that customer requirements are paramount and convenience alone is not enough to increase customer loyalty.

    Obviously, you think that the CX industry doesn’t have to affect customers’ obsession with convenience. Read between the lines, I assume that you will support the CX industry to continue to promote effortless experience even if this may exacerbate income inequality. Is my understanding of you correct?

  8. Hi Andy, great examples to support your argument; I buy into them. So, the question is: When should we allow external forces, regulators or other entities, get involved in influencing the purchasing decisions of customers?

    I think convenience or efficiency is a means to an end. For human beings, the ultimate goal is to live a meaningful or purposeful life. When we’re more efficient, we’ll have more time to pursue our ideal life.

    However, when the means doesn’t help, or even endangers our purpose, the means is no longer a good means and we should abandon it, e.g. when it comes to extremes, too much convenience/automation may create a “single” world – virtual – for our next generation, because they’re born and raised without much contact with the physical world. But who can deprive our children of the right to experience the “dual” world?

    Regarding sustainability, when most things are automated and controlled by computers, such as driverless cars. What if the systems of thousands of these cars have problems or are hacked? Do we expect Iron Man to save us from these huge disasters? There must be a reason why we have nuclear control instead of knife control. IMO, within a decade, automation will become a nuclear bomb.

    Could this convenience [innovation/development/improvement/offering] harm our stakeholders?

    No, we should never make it more difficult for our customers. But similar to too much capitalism, is there a tipping point where too much convenience/automation is not good for us, society and our children? “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” I agree with Mark Twain. Your thoughts?

  9. Hi Sampson, you are trying to connect two things that are not connected and suggesting there is a zero sum choice between the two i.e. that more convenience is only possible if income inequality diminishes.

    Convenience is a good thing for consumers. Income equality is a bad thing. Income equality is not a result of convenience, it’s the result of policies adopted by governments and transnational bodies which fail to tackle workers rights and tax avoidance practices by large powerful companies.

    that you will support the CX industry to continue to promote effortless experience even if this may exacerbate income inequality. Is my understanding of you correct?

  10. Hi John, thanks for your reply; I appreciate it. I’m not trying to connect two unrelated things, nor am I suggesting that there must be a zero-sum game choice between convenience and equality. Let me explain.

    In theory, I agree with you that convenience is not directly related to income inequality. However, when we observe it in the real world, two conditions must be considered.

    In fact, 1) customers are obsessed with convenience, and 2) tech giants pay little tax. Under these two conditions, when we promote ‘convenience’, tech giants profit most from it, and income inequality has increased. Clearly, unless proper tax policies are effectively implemented, convenience and inequality are closely related. Only then – when the tech giants are properly taxed – the zero-sum game of convenience and income equality will disappear.

    To answer your question: I will NOT support the CX industry in continuing to advocate effortless experience, regardless of whether this will exacerbate income inequality or not. This is because I’ve more reasons not to support CX’s promotion of ‘convenience’ than ‘inequality’. I hope I have answered your question clearly.

  11. Hi Sampson: Income inequality has been endemic in societies for thousands of years. There are myriad causes, and they have changed over time. Today, many people agree that income inequality results largely from gender, race, education, access to education, access to healthcare, and lately, deskilling of jobs through automation and artificial intelligence. I believe ‘convenience’ – however defined – cannot be impugned as causing incoming inequality.

    Companies that provide superior customer experience through astute technology deployment, efficient supply chains, and a commitment to providing outstanding service tend to have increasing stock prices. That shareholders benefit financially – or are allowed to benefit – is both positive and an emblem of expected market mechanisms. Capitalist economies could not function without inherent rewards for risk takers.

    Many could argue that global auto executives have received “outsized” compensation for increasing the revenue at their companies – partially the result of creating significant improvements in vehicle quality and safety. Simultaneously, auto factory jobs have become deskilled and eliminated through robotics and industrial automation. So the pay gap between senior management and line workers has expanded in the same way you describe in your article. But in mitigating that pay gap, I doubt anyone would advocate returning to the shoddy, unsafe vehicles that my family endured when I was growing up.

    One concern I have with ‘convenience’ in transactions has little to do with income inequality. It’s that in certain cases, purchases have become so perfunctory and ‘frictionless’ that customers don’t even know they’re making them. That’s a huge issue that has been exposed through the campaign contribution scandals by both Democrats and Republicans. Buried in the fine print of solicitations are confusing clauses about ‘recurring charges’, and cryptic instructions for ‘opting out’. In making those transactions convenient, marketers have subtly moved the line on what constitutes purchase acceptance. Instead of providing clarity on exactly when a purchase transaction has been made, vendors have intentionally obfuscated the purchase event, and made it onerous to terminate it.

    Contrast that to pre e-commerce when a customers were required to be deliberate. Items to be purchased were taken from store stock by the customer or retailer, placed on a counter for pricing and tallying, and paid for in cash (and later, by check or credit card, or other fungible instrument). The point is, before e-commerce technology enabled ‘convenience,’ purchase processes required multiple deliberate steps that were considered inconvenient. As with many things, purchase convenience represented a ‘shiny object,’ and both marketers and regulators failed to consider nefarious use. In hindsight, such inconvenience in purchasing prevented many consumers from over-spending, and made scams such as the ones we see today with campaign contributions, impossible.

  12. Hi Andy: Thank you for your reply. I believe that convenience will never cause or create income inequality. I’d be surprised if you’ve the impression that I’ve said or claimed that convenience will cause or create income inequality.

    Throughout the article and in all the comments on this discussion thread, I’ve been using descriptions such as continuing to promote convenience that may “exacerbate” or “increase” income inequality.” I didn’t say that convenience would “cause” or “create” income inequality. If you can find it, please point it out. I’m happy to avoid and correct it in my future works.

    It seems that I’ve a lot of thoughts about the ideas that came out of our conversation. I do need some time to digest. But all in all, Andy, thank you very much for taking your time and energy patiently to share your views and knowledge with me and the readers of this article. Looking forward to learning from you again soon.

  13. Hi Sampson – thanks for your note. Fair point. I am extrapolating a causal connection here based on the statement that convenience increases income inequality. Thank you for clarifying, and for including me in the conversation.

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