Friday, December 11, 2015

Have It Your Way

One of the cornerstone concepts we covered in MBA grad school was customer service. By "cornerstone" I mean that this idea underpinned every facet, every class that made up the program, from supply chain management to finance to drawing up the dreaded weebis. It was very much a central theme by choice rather than absolute necessity, not unlike writing a history of the world from the viewpoint of, say, Sicily, or organizing musical theory around the Lydian mode (or, for that matter, the major scale, instead of some other scale).

Until relatively recently, business clichés such as "the customer is always right" existed alongside sayings such as "you break it, you bought it", and in practice the relationship was one of patronage; i.e., business>consumer. The lack of logistics and technology made the relationship much more of a dependent one, to a degree that would be difficult to explain to a much-derided millennial -- perhaps as difficult as explaining to them why phones used to be rotary-dial, or that television was not always in color, much less in high-definition resolution.

This relationship made it very easy for manufacturers and retailers to establish brand identity, to an extent that the "customer" was more of a captive market than they might have realized. If you didn't like the clothes you tried on at your local Sears, maybe you could go to the Penney's across town, or in the next town. The idea of choice was directly related to how much of a pain in the ass you wanted to make out of a simple retail operation. And returning items you didn't want was even more fun.

So in B-school, as we in the inner circle like to call it, the idea of a "customer" is now much broader, and the relationships businesses have with them is much more symbiotic. In the newer paradigm, in addition to the traditional "external" customers, you also have "internal" customers -- so your boss is a customer, your co-workers are customers, even your vendors in a sense are customers. This re-examination of the definition and relationship was driven to a great extent by the innovations in logistics and technology.

In other words, companies know you have a bewildering array of options to choose from, and can go anywhere, but human nature being what it is, if you find a company you like, you'll probably stick with them, if for no other reason than it's simpler.

There are always a few people who will spend hours comparing prices for things, trying to save a buck here or there, because their time has no value and they self-actualize through shopping. It's the same thing as that relative of yours, your mother or aunt or grandmother (it's almost always a woman; most men abhor even online shopping) back in the day, driving to the next town to save two bucks on a pair of pants, or ten cents on a gallon of gas. But for the most part, people find maybe a second price to compare with, and will still end up going with the company they're used to, even if the price is a little higher.

Now, for most normal people, this newer dynamic of even large companies being more inclusive and indulgent with their customers has been a mutually beneficial thing -- for material goods, anyway; for services, it's still a clusterfuck, as anyone who's tried to disconnect from their cable or ISP finds out. But if you order something from Amazon and don't like it, why, they take it right back, no questions asked. They genuinely want to make you happy, because every reliable study shows -- and (to pull a frequent John Oliver-ism) this is true -- that it costs on average between five and ten times as much to find and pull in a new customer as it does to retain an existing customer.

This relationship is maintained with a constant, overweening solicitousness, an endless cascade of ads, surveys, advice to try other products that people who also bought your product also bought, and so forth. Again, for a normal person who just wants to find cool stuff once in a while, this can be (dare I say it) empowering. At the very least, the thoughtful consumer can save time (and maybe money) by better targeting items they are more likely to actually want and use.

Of course, the flip side to this cult of customer service is that the window-licking mutants who also inhabit the realm of humankind are merely enabled, rather than empowered. There's no worse way to handle someone who is temperamentally an asshole, than to let them have their way, or worse yet encourage them. I have long held a pet theory that part of the reason they are assholes is because no one confronts them. Everyone hopes they'll just go away and inflict their bullshit on the next hapless victim. And they do, until someone calls them on their shit and they snap, or someone gets sick of their shit and tears them a well-deserved new one.

Restaurants and waitstaff have long had to put up with these useless fucktards, which is a fair prima facie case for giving firearms to food-service workers. And we're now thoroughly conditioned to enable stupid and abusive people, to make them happy and ensure that they leave satisfied. We're conditioned to view everything as a product and everyone as a customer, and have been addled by a decade or so of reality teevee and sponsored content so that many people literally do not know any information or possess any critical thinking skills.

And yet it is expected that even dumbasses should be able to learn a skill, ply a trade, make and/or sell a useful product or service, raise children into responsible adults, drive an automobile safely, make sensible choices at the voting booth based on their rational self-interest. It might be suggested that when you enable and coddle people even at their worst, it just encourages more of that behavior -- and worse yet, that such behavior is normative, that it affects all the aforementioned expectations, and more.

You end up with a nation of Homer Simpsons, which is fine on a comedy cartoon program, but not so much in real life, especially as the cultural driving force. What happens when these bozos become a major part of deciding the political trajectory of the most wealthy and powerful nation the planet has ever seen?

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