Brand Culture: The end of “the customer is always right”
by DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) “The customer is always right” has been the mantra of successful business for as long as I can remember. If you want your business to succeed, you must concede every point and agree that, whatever the argument, whatever the demand, the customer is always right. It’s a fantastic theory that, at the very least, assumes that customers are guests in your store or, worse, that you, your company and all your employees are the economic slave of any individual who can afford a single item or one sitting of what you create or offer.
When we engage guests, we become more forthcoming with what is and isn’t acceptable or what we would and wouldn’t provide. The simplest form is when the best crockery comes out for ‘the guests’, thereby adjusting what is put on offer in order to provide a better experience and, subsequently, a better perception.
All people are brands
The simplest argument is one around honesty — the notion that you try to be something you’re not when guests are around. But I very seldom engage this as I tend to side with the point of view that most people simply cycle through various types of dishonesty as they move through life. It’s not a malicious lie; it’s simply a construction that we hold up in order to be our best selves for the existing audience — in essence, all people are brand people. Or simpler yet, all people are brands. But that’s not what I’m getting at.
This idea of ‘best for guests’ (or the customer is always right) has been challenged by something that happened a good while back. My father-in-law told me a story of how his mother-in-law used to always put the best out for everyone. There was no distinction between that family and the people. By denying the distinction, there is no position to be leveraged and all people simply become participants in the social system, acting out their roles.
It’s an interesting idea; it turns things on its head and somehow feels much warmer. When the symbolism of ‘best for the guest’ is eliminated, and we ignore the demarcation or social order or a type of class, you may only be judged in terms of how well you play your role. Are you a good guest? Are you a good family member?
New set of beliefs
This system of equality has a new set of beliefs behind it. It’s assumes not that some people are better than other, and judges people purely more equally — it’s an almost communist idea. Only instead of low-quality government-issue crockery, you get the best. Everyone is a comrade and everyone gets the best.
Branding is shifting in a similar way and while we’d still pay more to be catered for, brands are slowly starting to get rid of the idea that, no matter what, if you pay, you are in the right. I suspect it has a lot to do with the shift in how we perceive authority in a post-recessionary world but people are increasingly sensitive to being bigots in power. That is not to say that brands shouldn’t accommodate us. But it does mean that the role of brands in people’s lives has shifted. As brands have started to permeate our products (and subsequently our lives and societies), they have moved from being a platform for buying being right to become a label for a set of values around which we may congregate. And those values are in turn influenced by the people who see brands as an appropriate congregation point.
So where does the rubber hit the road? The nature of what Uber does, along with the affordability of video technology, has given us access to a world that shows us exactly how wrong a customer can be. The now ex-Taco Bell executive, Benjamin Golden, was filmed as he repeatedly hit an Uber driver against the head. In a more recent incident, Miami doctor Anjaali Ramiksoon was filmed, this time by other Uber riders, as she assaulted and damaged the property of an Uber driver. Here there is no question; Uber will not tolerate this behavior from customers and, using the same method it uses to reprimand staff, Uber allows driver to rate customers — a system that may result in being banned from the platform. The beliefs and the way we ought to treat each other are slowly but surely creeping into the spotlight.
Refreshing to see
In a similar display of not tolerating rudeness, Elon Musk took his company’s order list and deleted a customer who behaved in a way that is unbecoming of a Tesla driver. Now here I suspect there is a bit of Musk ego involved but it was refreshing to see a company outside the sphere of the app boom stand up to a customer.
Companies have for years blacklisted or banned difficult customers; this is not new, but the participation of customers in supporting the ban is. By getting into an Uber, by being allowed, I demonstrate my participation in all the values of the brand, including the banning of Ramikoon and Golden. The people who are excluded, based upon values, become part of the equity of the brand I take part in.
What is the implication of this in terms of branding? We can no longer simply bend to the whims of the customer. If the classic ‘consumer-is-always-right’ approach were taken, we would certainly have been stranded with a team that tried to cobble together an offering that accommodated the hot-headed customers while at the same time providing some measure of safety for drivers. But the customers are not right. There is a higher measure than ‘I paid’. Uber will provide a friendly and efficient service to civil customers who respect the driver. It’s underpinned by series of values that will include The Golden Rule, it will include mutual respect and, in some way, it will stand firmly in the principles of the free market. It’s something we can all nod to and say, ‘that is a point around which I can congregate.’
Stronger moral compass
But it requires a deeper understanding than simply going with the massive river of consumer demands. I suspect it requires less bravery than you’d think and a stronger moral compass. It requires insight into the cultural landscape and what the moral implications are. The result will also shift. Rather than the constant churn of fickle customers, you build a family of loyalists (both customers and staff) to whom you present your best crockery. You leave the door ajar for anyone who shares your ideas. You then measure your success not in the amount of feet that pass through your door, but rather the amount of people you can bring together under the same beliefs.
This, I understand, is not ground-breaking thinking but its application has proven to be a challenge. It’s far easier to ask people what they want and simply deliver. But we also have to acknowledge that South Africa is in a difficult place in terms of what we believe and, even worse, what we think other South Africans believe. Brands have their hands on the levers of popular opinion and can shift what people see as acceptable. It’s no longer a matter of what people buy but rather what the buy-into putting real social shift within firing range of our industry.
DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) is head of strategy at Cape Town ad agency, 140BBDO, and brings cultural context and long-term trend insights to brand communication through cultural insight and semiotics. He contributes the monthly “Brand Culture” column, exploring the value and meaning interaction between brands and society, to MarkLives.com.
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