Serving Today’s Wired and Dangerous Customer

The landscape of customer service has been re-contoured.  Today’s customers are not at all the way they used to be 20 years ago.  What has caused customers to be so different?  First, customers get terrific service from some organizations and use those experiences to judge everyone.  When the FedEx delivery person walks with a sense of urgency we expect the mail carrier to do likewise.  Second, customers have far more choices than ever before so they are forced to use their purchase experience as their primary tool for discernment.

Third, today’s customers are much smarter buyers than their parents were.  The Internet has become a potent source of real-time education.  It has also been a tool for instant assessment.  Considering Sleepwell Hotel for your next vacation trip?  You can instantly get web-based information complete with evaluations from forty-eleven previous guests.  We are our own Consumer Reports.

These three changes have left customers Picky--more cautious in the choices.  Made smarter by the internet, they are empowered and emboldened to accept nothing short of value.  It has made them Fickle—quicker to leave if unhappy.  Forty four percent of customers stop doing business immediately after a less than satisfactory experience and another 15% exit as soon as their contract is up!  Customers at the end of the recession were 14% more likely to complain than before the recession.

The changes have made customer more “Vocal.”  Social media drives five times the impact of traditional word of mouth.  According to recent research conducted by Convergys, 62% of customers who read about a bad experience on social media stop doing business with or avoid doing business with the offending company.  This phenomenon will grow as the use of social media increases with more consumers being digital natives, not digital immigrants.  And, it has made customers more “Vain”—expecting treatment that telegraphs they are unique.  They want personalized service delivered via their preferred channel.  Features have become far more titillating than function; extras more valued than the core offering.

Today’s Customers Are Also Wired and Dangerous

Today, the customer really is king.  Enabled and equipped by the Internet, with its capacity to instantly reach a gazillion fellow customers with the click of a mouse, customers can bring any service provider to its knees almost overnight.  The new normal customer, with this newfound strength, is no more the small and subservient victim of the stereotypically colossal and greedy corporation of yesteryear.  Plentiful product and service information has created a more mature customer.  Customers today are wired and dangerous.  Let us illustrate just how dangerous they can be today.

After musician Dave Carroll learned from fellow passengers that United Airlines baggage handlers were damaging his guitar on the tarmac, he was unable to find anyone at United willing to make the situation right, so he made a music video about his woes.  He posted the video on YouTube, chronicling in humorous detail United’s failure to provide appropriate service and their limp approach to repairing or reconciling the situation.  This negative view of the United brand has been viewed by well over 10 million people!  This juicy cyber battle has been cited endlessly as an example of what not to do both in the media and in print.  According to a blog written by The Economist and posted on July 24, 2009, the Dave Carroll incident cost United Airlines 10 percent of share value, or about $180 million.

Only a few years ago Dave would have had to work his way through the United bureaucracy, while complaining and would most likely only been able to spread the word of his frustration by telling his story to friends and family members.  Perhaps he would have found a “consumer advocate” willing to tell his story on radio or television, which may have brought enough leverage to goad United into action.  Not today!  Dave rebelled and brought his story graphically in a music video to the power of the Internet and word of his situation spread at warp speed.

Partnering with Today’s Wired and Dangerous Customer

Take a quick look at the most recent “Best Companies for Customer Service” list.  The same cast of characters makes those lists every year.  And, their bottom lines have shown similar “winner” features.  What do they have in common?  Regardless of their primary channel of service delivery, they have built a powerful bond with customers by bringing partnership principles to the service experience.  They all have unmistakable features that keep high touch with high tech and insure “relationship” remains in the center of customer relationship management.  Five tenants characterize their partnership approach to preventing today’s wired customers from become today’s dangerous customers.

1. Always Tell the Truth

The truth-seeking component of the healthy relationship is that which values candor and openness.  It is the dimension that honors authenticity and realness.  It includes a commitment to a conversation with customers rather than unilateral action.  It begins with asking for input.  It involves operating with the faith that wisdom lies within us all and that by tapping the collective brainpower of customers and associates, the organization is stronger, more responsive and more adaptive to the ever-changing requirements of customers and employees.

2. Close the Trust Gap

We live our lives on promises.  The trust gap is the emotional space between hope and evidence; between expectation and fulfillment.  Trust is the emotion that propels customers to the other side of the gap.  The manner in which an organization manages the trust gap drives every other component of the encounter.  Granted, great service recovery can turn an aggrieved customer back into a satisfied customer.  But the residue of betrayal will leave a disappointed customer perpetually on guard for the time a letdown re-occurs.

3. Create a Great Experience

Today’s customers want sparkly and glitter; a cherry on top of everything.  It means that attracting customer loyalty today requires thinking of service as an attraction.  Examine how Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops decorate their service experience.  If your enterprise was “choreographed” by Walt Disney World, a Lexus dealership, MTV or Starbucks, how would it change?  What senses can you stimulate that you are now just ignoring?  What is the “Free Prize Inside” you can add to customer’s experience like Cracker Jack’s did for caramelized popcorn?

4. Invite Customers to Be Partners

Customer participation is a core component of a healthy partnership. invites their website community to vote on the coolest t-shirts designed by fellow amateurs.  The winning entries become their product offerings, providing great exposure for budding designers and a sense of ownership by the community.  Mountain Dew created a user-generated movement to launch a new product.  The process (called Dewmocracy) involved more than 3 million customers in various phases of the design, development and marketing of a new drink ultimately called White Out.  People will care if they share.  Find ways to help customers feel like insiders.

5. And, Nurture a Community

In some ways the Internet is a return to the old-fashioned village.  While the new village is a global community, it nevertheless has many of the features of the village of yesteryear.  In a small town, merchants knew you and catered to your specific needs.  They acted on history and patterns of previous purchases.  They’d even open the store after hours if you needed something.  Over the last fifty years commerce has become distant, impersonal, mechanized and one-size-fits all.  The Internet in general and social media in particular has helped connect customers with businesses in ways that are more personalized, open, around-the-clock and valued.

Like the old-fashioned village, the Internet is a world under a microscope.  Value must be real and look real.  The eye candy of websites must be interesting, easy, fast and imaginative, or the cyber traveler will only be a drive-by window shopper or a targeted bargain hunter with little intent of sticking around (called being sticky) or coming back.  It makes generosity—providing extra to value, not thinking of value as tit for tat—an important means to ensure a genuine partnership.

Emerging from a time of layoffs, cutbacks and all types of subtractions, customers are picky about what they buy, fickle with their brand affinity, vocal in communicating their needs, and vain in their expectation of personalized treatment.  However, with their internet reach the wired customer also has the potential of being dangerous.  Like those who lived through the great depression, in this new era of the customer it is time to return to the core of what serving another should be—a partnership.

© Chip Bell Group, 2023.  Courtesy of John R. Patterson (  Permission is given to download and distribute this article as long as it contains this copyright notice.