Customer-centricity: is it the answer?

Michael Hammer's new book, The Agenda, is about the rise of customer power. But is customer-centricity really such a good model for business and society?
Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

John Porcaro pointed me to Michael Hammer’s website for The Agenda, which aims to “offer businesspeople some guidelines on how to survive in an economy where customers have the upper hand.”

There are several extract’s from Hammer’s new book here on the challenges of what he calls The Customer Economy. Judging by these, he certainly writes engagingly on how the power in the economy has shifted from sellers to buyers. Like most gurus, he coins his own acronyms such as ETDBW which stands for Easy to Do Business With. Also like many, his style is somewhat apocalyptic and exhorting:

The halcyon days of the 1990s were an aberration. Tough times are the norm. Only rarely do external events conspire to give us an environment in which businesses can operate nearly effortlessly.

On the other hand, one of the causes of customer power is that in the 20th century

scarcity gave way to abundance, as supply overtook and exceeded demand

To me, these ideas are somewhat at odds with each other… that in a time of abundance, business is increasingly tough. That doesn’t fit my idea of an abundant world, in which there is enough to go round and people can afford to be generous and civil in their dealings with each other.

For me, “in today’s increasingly competitive business environment” is a very grey-haired, bewhiskered cliche on which Hammer performs his own riff.

And much of what he writes here, and others elsewhere, on the triumph of the customer, troubles me.

Yes, it’s good to see complacent businesses forced to take proper care of customers. Equally, in our society it seems that the default setting for being a customer is to be constantly making demands and probably dumping on the latest suppliers all the frustrations of living in an over-stimulated world.

Buyer-centricity actually makes the same mistake as seller-centricity: it fails to realise that we are all both buyers and sellers – of ideas, enthusiasms, products and our time. One moment I’m buying, another I’m selling… I don’t want to spend my life switching from demanding bully to cowering sycophant.

I know a consultancy that had an ethos of always making its customers happy… but in so doing caused nervous breakdowns and failed marriages for its people. To my mind, that’s customer-centricity gone mad.

So what I would argue for is not a “what-time-would-you-like-it-to-be?” customer approach, but one that is based on a relationship of reciprocity. That offers real engagment, instead of the breathless attempt to please at all times. After all, we don’t make friendships with bland ciphers, we make them with people who have quirks, eccentricities and all the normal human foibles. They sometimes irritate us, let us down or fail us, and we try to carry on because we’re only human.

In fact my own favourite brands engage me in a community and often leave me more work to do, not less. (I blogged a few days ago about the challenge of joining the Movable Type community). So I’m not sure I go along with ETDBW…

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