Game Over for Customer Choice
There is a seismic shift happening in customer service, and it’s not the move being made by customers to use digital channels. It’s not even the change in behaviour we as customers exhibit; preferring self-serve, searching online for answers, or seeking out like-minded folk on community sites. The change I’m talking about is so fundamental and profound it could bring about a societal change and even be the dawn of the machine age prophesied in sci-fi classics like 1984, War of the Worlds, Terminator and Blade Runner.
Have we been asleep at the wheel? Did someone plan this? Is it what customers want?
The change I’m referring to is who chooses who? Is it customers who chose suppliers or the reverse? The choices we think we make when we decide to buy, rent or use. We think we’re in control. We think we are making the decisions. But suppose it’s the suppliers who decide who they have as customers. Suppose, just for a minute, we the customers are being selected by the suppliers.
Take Uber. When you search for an Uber car, several options show up. The drivers know you want a ride. They decide who they carry – not you. Or Airbnb. You search for accommodation in a location. Several options pop up. The providers look at your profile and track record and decide whether they want you. And what about loyalty cards? The supplier collects data about your purchasing and preferences and decides what sort of service and product you should have, based on your track record. Who’s in charge here? Not the customer that’s for sure.
When you use a comparison search site, what’s really happening? You input all your details for home insurance or energy suppliers. The search engine in the background is checking your credit worthiness and previous choices and presenting this data to a basket of suppliers who then decide whether or not to offer you a quote. They, the suppliers are deciding whether they want you, well before you make a choice.
What’s behind this shift in power between suppliers and customers is of course data – lots of it – and analytics. In his seminal book Dataclysm, Christian Rudder shares with us his experience of building profiles and matches on dating websites. The power and scale of the analytics happening on sites like Match.com and OK.Cupid is mind-boggling. Terabytes of data reveal traits and preferences customers themselves never disclose, but can be used to decide for them who is the best match. And they get it right more often than wrong.
The demographics of populations have a big role to play in the shift I’m describing. Millenials are not interested in the frills, bells and whistles organisations try to offer to keep customers loyal. Indeed, judging by the way some mobile operators offer customer service, they’ve practically given up on trying to keep customers loyal by abandoning traditional call centres in favour of interaction or engagement strategies using digital and self-service alone. Look at the success of plusNet and Giff Gaff and you quickly realise customers care less and less about being wanted, needed and loved. ‘Just fix my problem and I’ll leave you alone’, they seem to be saying. All this does is encourage suppliers to position themselves to be relevant to customers who are cheap to serve and don’t have very demanding needs. Suppliers again find these customers through analytics and careful selection of those they know will fit their profile and not the other way round.
Should we be worried about this shift in power? Is this end of ‘customer is king’ and ‘customer is always right’? Maybe. But we shouldn’t be scared of this. Far from it. We need to embrace it. Play the game, be part of the change and work out how we can make this a win-win for suppliers and customers. Decisions we make about opting in or out, sharing preference data and agreeing to cookies provide the raw material for suppliers to decide whether we are worth marketing to and what they should offer. Being conscious of this is crucial. If you’re not sure you want to play the game, start taking down your social media presence, avoid sharing personal details and lock down your profile. If you’re more adventurous, start thinking about where and who you want to actively share your data with as the future where suppliers decide whether you’re a good bet, is just on the horizon.