The Myth of the Empowered Customer
We are supposed to be in the Age of the Empowered Consumer — because the all-powerful consumer is in the driver’s seat. The consumer has unlimited information literally at her fingertips anytime, anywhere – for almost no cost. The almighty consumer will know it all, heck there will even be corporate Edward Snowden-style leaks to further inform the customer. On top of that, the barrier of switching providers is so low that the empowered consumer will ditch your service at the slightest sign of a bad experience. Not only will they defect, they also have a huge megaphone to broadcast your dirty laundry to the world and bring you to your knees. For self-preservation sake, every organization will be so scared that they will be forced to treat customers better. There will be ongoing one-upmanship in the customer experience space, with everyone trying to “out-experience” the others, all to avoid mass exodus of the empowered consumer.
I don't know about you but I sure as heck don't feel empowered. I still go online to shop at websites that are confusing. I am swiping my own credit card, bagging my own groceries, pumping my own gas all the while paying more for it. Do I have more information about products and services? Yes, a dizzying amount of information - so much information that I am confused and paralyzed. Do I have more choices? Well yes, so many darn choices that it takes me 30 minutes to decide on a box of cereal! Is the barrier of switching lower? Sure, heck I have fantasized about ditching my insurance company for another one for a while because of my experiences with them - they didn't seem to get the memo that I am empowered. The problem, from what I can figure, is that their competition is actually no better. In fact, it appears they all got together and decided to take blood allegiances to mediocrity. So yes, the barrier of switching is fairly low. But if I switched providers, I would be trading one flavor of crap for another. I am so empowered I can't call customer service in front of my young son because there is more than a 50/50 chance I might yell obscenities into the poorly-designed IVRs. There are probably more bad IVRs today than there were 10 years ago. Not only is there scant data showing a vast improvement in CX due to consumer empowerment, I don’t know of anyone telling me how great customer experiences are getting across the board.
Clearly, great customer experiences have not become the norm. Truth is, the threat that was supposed to motivate organizations to improve experiences never really materialized for a couple of reasons.
For one thing the so-called megaphone turned out to be the exception not the rule. Sure you can cite examples from Netflix and BOA involving customers being able to drive change. But they continue to be the exception, not the rule. Are organizations generally afraid of social media backlash? Of course. Have they hired more 20 year-old interns to man twitter and Facebook? Yes. Has it raised the bar of customer-centricity? I would say “no”. The second thing is that all the "empowering information" at our finger tips isn’t making consumers empowered. It is actually making things more confusing and time-consuming. The source of a lot of our information is search, and it is increasingly biased. In an effort to "personalize" your experience, your search results are no longer objective. In the Age of the Empowered Consumer, there is actually more opportunity to be found instead of playing defense and worrying about what the customer mob might pressure you into doing. The fact is that customer experience will always be a point of differentiation, and it might actually be easier to deliver an exceptional experience today than at any time past. With the sheer amount of data available, the days of guessing why your customer might be contacting you is almost over and you can now very safely anticipate your customer needs and deliver. If you still need to be motivated by fear to deliver great customer experiences, well, here is a little additional fear for you — you probably won’t suffer the fate UNITED did in this video. Your customers will simply defect to your competitor without much fanfare.