The customer's always right.
At least, that's what conventional wisdom says. I studied marketing in business school, so while my peers in other tracks were poring over financial statements or reading the most recent literature on workplace ergonomics, I was learning how to gather and interpret copious amounts of customer data-again and again and again. I was trained to drink often and deeply from the waters of customer feedback, to use that feedback as the basis for the next product or campaign. The more customer feedback, the better. In this path, we were taught, companies could never go wrong.
But is there ever a point where companies need to stop listening to customers' demands?
Three words for you: Starbucks red cup. Remember that time (just a couple weeks ago) when Starbucks changed their holiday cup design to a vaguely winter theme and social media had a meltdown? Many accused Starbucks of Christian-hating. Donald Trump starting talking about boycotting the coffee chain. Many others mocked the accusers. Starbucks was stuck trying to apologize with a line that went something like, "We didn't mean anything by it. We were just updating our cup design to make it more usable beyond the holidays."
It was a massive headache for Starbucks and a great source of entertainment for consumers. Now, two weeks later, consumers have moved on to a new target. This week, they're accusing Disney of whitewashing ads for Star Wars: The Force Awakens in China by removing any evidence of non-Anglo Saxon characters-including Wookiees. Or was that last week's object of customer ire?
It's worth noting here that The Best Companys.com believes in the power of customer feedback to create progress in the market. Our whole site is based on this concept. But it's hard to ignore recent trends that indicate that an increasing amount of customer feedback, particularly via social media, might be better off ignored.
If a product or service is going to be released to the market, you can bet someone is going to find a reason to be offended by it. Social media, with its ability to get thousands or millions of people fuming together about even the most trivial issues, has amped up the sensitivity level of consumers to 11. It seems like every offense is met with a fiery righteous indignation usually reserved for civil rights movements or toppling dictators.
And then there's the way that social media multiplies the directions from which this indignation could come. As people with the most seemingly fringe or random interests conglomerate around those interests on social media, there seems to be a vocal advocacy group for every cause you can imagine--and even some causes companies can't imagine. At the current rate, companies won't be able to do or say anything without causing a backlash on social media.
Observing this phenomenon around Starbucks' Cup-gate scandal, Fortune writer Tim Calkins said:
"Companies should make an effort to anticipate how people might react to different issues, but it's impossible to always get it right. There is no reason why Starbucks should have anticipated this controversy..."
While a great number of company faux pas can be anticipated, companies need to know their limits. I suppose they can foresee those groups that will find reasons to be angry about anything they do (Ex: PETA is always going to have something mean to say about Burger King). But it's the unknowns they have to worry about.
Companies can't foretell what one influencer is going to think about a cup or a movie poster or how that influencer's Instagram post is going to be magnified by his or her followers. Companies who buy wholesale into the idea of responding and catering to all customers' comments, in this kind of environment, will drive themselves batty trying to do this.
At the same time, they will find themselves distracted from improving their products and services, wasting precious resources. Just ask management at the King of Prussia Mall...
As it tends to do, this holiday season has brought controversy of the trivial kind, this time to the mall in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Mall managers thought they would spruce things up by providing a more sleek, futuristic, interactive holiday display-imagine if the Apple store and the North Pole had a baby, and you're there.
While not a complete atrocity, the display quickly attracted naysayers who, naturally, took to social media to have it smitten from the face of the earth. Seventeen-year-old Colby Park reacted with disdain: "They could have made this a good display."
He then created a petition on Change.org and soon had hundreds of signatures, demanding that the mall add more Christmas trees and other traditional elements to the display.
The president of the mall chain acquiesced and released this apology:
"In six of our nearly 200 malls, Simon had developed a new Santa experience. It was our intention to experiment with delivering a modern interactive experience for the family. After listening to customer feedback, we immediately decided to reinstall our existing Christmas decor and hope our customers will join us in celebrating the Christmas season."
By the way, these kinds of company apologies are becoming so commonplace, Microsoft is probably considering including an "apology template" in their next version of Word.
On the mini-fiasco, a local journalist commented, "You're in business for your customers, right? So you need to know what you can change."
You need to know what you can change. These words should be a word of warning to other companies determined to respond to every outbreak on social media about their brand. Prettiest mall holiday display ever? No. But would it really have hurt mall traffic or sales numbers? Probably not. Like almost all mall displays out there, it would've been just background noise to the real activity of browsing stores and buying things.
In the end, what does the King of Prussia Mall get for responding to one 17-year-old and his questionable petition? A lot of money and time wasted conceptualizing, setting up, and taking down one holiday display, time wasted reacting to "backlash," and then time and money to set up a more traditional holiday display that most people will probably walk right past without a second glance.
As in any healthy relationship, listening and responding should be the default setting for companies, but it seems that there are also times when companies should reject customer feedback.
Yes, companies should listen to their customers-for the most part. When customer feedback reveals that their employees have treated customers badly, companies need to hear and react swiftly to that feedback. A recent incident comes to mind in which Comcast employees were found to have changed a customer's name in their database to "A**hole Brown." They went on to do the same to other customers...
Yes, customer feedback can reveal actions by the company that are ruining their brand, and in these instances, it becomes a crucial way for companies to discover and rectify these problems.
But when are companies better off ignoring customer feedback? In many cases-and often with social media-those doing the complaining aren't customers, target customers, or even remotely influential to their target audience. Let's face it: so many tweets and posts are just thrown out flippantly by people who are bored, folks just looking for a diversion. How many of the tweets objecting to Starbucks' red cup came from non-Starbucks customers? If a company ignores these naysayers, what harm is done to their brand?
Recent history is replete with examples of successful brands who knew how to filter out important consumer feedback from irrelevant feedback. When Chick-fil-A's CEO Dan T. Cathy's opinion regarding gay marriage came under fire and opponents threatened a boycott of the chicken chain, they could've jettisoned Cathy, as other companies have done in similar circumstances. Instead of reacting reflexively to the threats, however, Chick-fil-A kept its CEO, issued a neutral statement about the gay marriage issue, and their customers kept coming.
In fact, when you look at the great companies of the past century, their success is based as much on listening to customers as it is on not listening to them. Henry Ford-you know, founder of Ford Motor Company, inventor of the modern assembly line, democratizer of automobiles-once scoffed at the idea of relying on consumers with these words: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."
And what about groundbreaking, iconic Apple? Steve Jobs was once famously quoted as saying, "We built [the Mac] for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren't going to go out and do market research."
As if that didn't make Steve Jobs' relationship with customers clear enough, he said even more bluntly years later, "A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."
More than ever, especially with social media giving voice to every consumer (both relevant and irrelevant), companies need to adjust their mantra. No, the customer is not always right. Sometimes they're blowing something small out of proportion. Sometimes they're not really your customer at all. Those companies who learn to listen selectively, to filter out the relevant feedback from the irrelevant will continue to adapt to their real customers' needs without wasting time and energy on every complaint that blows up on Twitter.