The Real Customer Control Issue..

My post ‘The Customer is not in control. Nor are you!’ seems to have hit a nerve. It got 20 great comments from 16 great people (thank you Tom Asacker, Graham Hill, Arie Goldshlager, Esteban Kolsky, Mitch Lieberman, Angela Dunn, Tim Harrap, Bart Norre, Prem Kumar, Glenn Ross, Gagan Saxena, Maz Iqbal, Laurence Buchanan, Mike Boysen, Ray Brown, Bernd Nurnberger) to prove it ;)

One thing is clear from the comments: there are many aspects to ‘control’. Here are the 5 themes that I see emerging from the comments and would like to elaborate on a little more in this post.

Theme 1: Customer Effort & Complexity
Almost everyone seems to agree with my point that, despite the social ‘Customer is on control’-mantra, the Customer (decision) journey can be rather overwhelming and products can be uncomfortably complex. Helping Customers regain some control by reducing (service) complexity and providing help through decision-guidance tooling seems a reasonable demand, and there is plenty of proof this is a strategy that works (thanks to Graham Hill for bringing in the brand simplicity index).

Theme 2: Privacy & Identity
Another issue with control that is widely recognized is the issue of securing one’s identity and privacy. Laurence Buchanan says it like it is: “As a customer on that side of the equation I feel I have lost control of my information and data and significant power has shifted to the information holders and brokers.”

And Angela Dunn makes an excellent point when she says that “Instagram missed with their controversial privacy change to their Terms of Service. They could have offered a split-revenue model to users with an opt-in for photos that could be shared by brands. This would have been a win-win.” She concludes: “Platforms will win that allow control over identity”. I totally agree with Angela, as I agree with Graham Hill that it remains to be seen if something like VRM will contribute to solving this element of the Customer – Company control issue. Although it may be the best idea we have to offer so far, since more legislation and regulations do not seem to change business practice.

Theme 3: Consciousness & Influence
In his comment Esteban Kolsky makes the case that the balance has not shifted for the “Decision is back with the customer (to share or not) and the company (to listen and act, or not)”. And he’s right. Choice equals control, or does it..

For on the other side there’s Tom Asacker who states “We really don’t ‘know’ why we do much of what we do. We are being pushed and pulled by our environments and stimuli that appeals to our values, desires, and cognitive limitations”. And Tom is also right. People make a lot of subconscious decisions only to rationalize them afterwards. And most of the influencing takes place in the unconscious mind, like Graham Hill states, under the influence of our (strong tie) social networks. This begs the question if we human beings are even capable of ‘control’..

Theme 4: Empathy & Context
As I’m currently reading the new book by Irene Ng on Value and Worth – creating new markets in the digital economy – I was very glad Prem Kumar commented as he did. Succinct, as always, he made his point: “My thought in all this is, so long as we talk about customers as a different species we might be unable to empathize”.

And I believe that the business solution to showing empathy is through designing a service that deeply leverages an understanding for the context in which the Customer is trying to create value. And this is exactly what Irene Ng’s new book is about. I’ll keep a deeper dive into this for a later post (when I’ve finished the book).

But, how does this tie into the issue of ‘control’? Well, I think I agree with a.o. Laurence Buchanan and Ray Brown, who argue that the word ‘control’ is probably locking in the discussion. Although I do believe that creating value in context requires a whole lot of Customer empowerment to tailor a service to their own specific needs, much like Arie Goldshlager is suggesting.

In fact the ‘Customer – company control issue’ is the wrong way to look at this issue. I’ve said it before: it is all about the Customer being in control of their own lives, not the Company controlling the Customer, or vice-versa.

Theme 5: Ecosystems
Maz Iqbal took an interesting perspective that builds on my last statement: “If you look at it using an ecosystem perspective you are likely to get that companies and customers are both in a competitive and a cooperative relationship. […] nobody has control. And that is pretty much the way it is in an ecosystem.”

This stresses the point of view that context is important as it is clearly so that people assume different roles in the ecosystem depending on the context they are in. Control is therefor not only different in the context we are observing it, it is also different if we change the point of view within the same context.

Maz (and he’s not the only one) concludes his by saying: “nobody has control. And that is pretty much the way it is in an ecosystem. The whole concept of control in business is a myth, a superstition – an addictive one. Reality is much more nuanced.”

To conclude:
The Customer – Company Control Issue may be largely, if not completely, non-existent. The real issue is the one about the Customer being able to take control over her own life, her own jobs-to-be-done, fulfillment of her own dreams.

And there are a lot of threats out there to keep her from doing just that. First of all the world is full of complexity and it still takes a lot of effort to unravel it. At the same time the world is full of ‘predator companies’ trying to leverage people’s data and identity without offering a fair exchange value. And Customers may be their own biggest threat to being in control with their minds playing all the tricks and the same predators trying to find ways to influence the tricks, not the conscious mind.

On the positive side, companies and organizations that are willing to do the hard work – willing to design service that takes into account the different contexts in which people are trying to gain control over and improve their lives as well as the needs and perspectives of the other players in the ecosystem – and provide the platform that empowers users to not only take control, but also feel it as such, are more likely to prosper than those who stick to broken record approaches.

Makes sense?

3 thoughts on “The Real Customer Control Issue..

  1. Wim
    I like the way that you have summarised the conversation. Since last time I have been looking at control using the lens of phenomenology and the following has showed up for me:

    The default from which I operate is trust. It has to be so. If I did not operate from such a default my life would come crashing down. Just imagine what life would be like, at a practical level, if I distrusted every organisation I dealt with, every human being I interacted with.

    Despite operating from this context my encounters with organisations have taught me to be on my guard with certain organisations in certain situations. And yet this concern still occurs in the context of trust. For example, I do trust that the AA will take care of me if my car breakdowns. And I have learnt to shop around when the annual renewal comes because I have learnt from experience I can save up to 33% of the premium. Another example, I have learned that I can trust Amazon with books but not say large items like televisions. Which is my way of saying that I have learnt that it works to be on my guard, exercise control in certain situations and not to do so, to let go of control, in other situations.

    I cannot control something that I am not aware of. Recently, I trusted on organisation (Royal Mail) with an important ‘job that I needed to get done’. As I see it they have not done that job. They say they have. And I have learnt that what I take to be the job that I hired them to do is not the job that they see they were hired to do – or at least they claim it is not.

    Which is my way of saying that the default is for the customer to trust the organisation. And thus not to seek control. And when the customer has suffered enough blows – disappointments, trickery, manipulation – s/he learns to be vigilant and seek control. Which is why privacy is not an issue for the normal customer. S/he does not experience ‘loss of privacy or damage from privacy’. Yes, organisations may be collecting data and selling it. The key is that the ‘average customer’ does not experience this nor the negative impact of it. So he/she is not concerned with it.

    Finally, it occurs to me that to simply live – to function in the world that I live in – I have to find the middle way between striving to be in total control of my life (impossible) or handing over control of my life to others (not a wise course). And so like the tightrope walker, I intuitively strive to balance, making little adjustments as I walk that rope.

    What do you think? What is your experience?



  2. Rather than enter some lengthy discussion, I’ll just put it simply. All human beings want control over their own lives. That means control over what they do with other “entities” be they other people or institutions. Companies need to accommodate that desire while meeting their own criteria for success as a business in order to retain the interest of the customer. That is the 21st century differentiation for a business. What constitutes value for a business is not the same as what constitutes value for a customer. Consequently the translation that has to go on to figure out how to provide that value to the customer and receive value in return is not simple. What the customer has control of is how and where they communicate their discussions (control of the conversation) and with whom. The company has ZERO to say about that. They can only respond and they have to in many circumstances – not all. That’s where the last sentence of my definition of Social CRM has always been – “its the company’s programmatic response to the customer’s control of the conversation” – not of the company. That said, the contemporary customer is far better at driving demand than the company is 4 times out of 5 (that’s not science; only descriptive).

    Keep up the good work sir. You’re a smart man.


    • Hi Paul,

      Honored to have you here! And very glad you did, because you highlighted the one element I did not mention.. for a reason..

      The reason being that I agree with you that no company can exercise any power or control over what Customers are saying about them.. and they do need to respond (in many cases, not all, like you said).

      For the record: It was not the objective of my post to dispute that (If that was the case I would have done it openly, and provided a heads-up, like friends do) or your definition of Social CRM. From your response I think you know that.

      The objective of my post was to re-fuel the debate on exactly how Customer centric we are (becoming) if we look at the business practices of today.. (with data/privacy/complexity/neuro-marketing-for-all-the-wrong-reasons issues)..

      As a bonus I got a lot of great thoughts, from many smart men (including you now and – but one – for she’s a smart woman) that help me further my thinking on what’s in the way of, or what could really fuel, being Customer centric..

      Thx again! for the visit & the comment.



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