When I started out on this web journey back in the mid-90's, I was a bit idealistic and naive. I actually believed that the web could be a place where people could find and do what they needed to do as quickly and easily as possible. I actually believed in marketing concepts like ‘the customer is king.’
I was presenting these ideas to a manager in a large organization once and halfway through the presentation he stopped me. I’m paraphrasing him but this is essentially what he said to me.
“I admire your enthusiasm and passion,” he said. “But what you’re saying is idealistic. Let me tell you how real business works. Real business uses marketing and advertising to paint an emotional picture about how much it cares about its customers, how much it cares about the environment, whatever. That’s the story it has to sell. I mean, business can’t just tell customers that it’s trying to sell them something they don’t really need or can’t afford. It’s not going to say that the more loyal a customer is the more they’re overcharged. It’s not going to say that the reason it’s outsourcing its support is because it wants to minimize the cost of managing its current customer base.”
He took a sip from his coffee. “Real business has a military mindset. Marketing and advertising are military exercises. The objective is to conquer as many customers and as much of their money as possible by piling on the propaganda and pulling hard on those emotional triggers. It runs campaigns of conquest that target customers and seek to capture market share. Once the campaign has been won, the bounty is the new customers captured, and the feeling is that the business can pretty much do as it wants with this bounty.”
“Every organization has its values blah blah blah and its mission blah blah blah,” he continued. “It’s just paper. When the doors are closed and the sales targets are set, the wolves come out. I’m not proud of it. And I know most of my colleagues are not proud of it. I wish there was another way. I see huge customer turnover. But it’s just the way it is. This is the system. I wish there was another way but I just can’t see it ever changing.”
A couple of weeks ago — almost 20 years later — I had a chat with another manager. “Amazon walk the walk,” he told me almost incredulously. “They actually seem to genuinely care about their customers. They treat them fairly.” And then we got to talking about Slack and how it automatically refunds you for inactive team members. He shook his head and laughed so loudly that others in the restaurant noticed. “The world’s gone crazy,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
The world’s gone crazy because the customer is no longer some helpless victim waiting to be carried off as bounty by yet another marketing campaign that overpromises and underdelivers. The world’s gone crazy because today you can actually do great business by doing great by your current customers. Crazy, crazy, crazy.