The emerging era of customer unions!

I was reading an interesting article by Umair Haque on the threat of open customer rebellion and how industrial age businesses are completely unprepared to change the ways they  engage, treat and manage customers.He writes:

"Yesterday's massive, sprawling organizations could pacify "consumers" by buying them off with a discount or three, an overblown celebrity promising the moon, an entirely new "brand" designed as camouflage, or adding an extra blade or five, patty or three, or cylinder or four, and calling it "innovation." But that probably won't pacify people concerned not merely with what they "get," but with what, if anything, you're really contributing to society".

He goes to quote an interesting example:

"ING customers mobilised on Twitter and other social networks to protest at bonuses paid to bosses at the bank, one of the biggest in the country. The threat of direct action raised the spectre of a partial run on ING, terrifying the Dutch establishment. Fred Polhout, union organiser at the bank, says: "People were outraged. We heard about the bloated sums being paid again in the City and in New York; but suddenly the issue exploded on our own front door."

To me this is a lovely articulation of  how unprepared many companies are. It made me think of some interesting analogy of how new information age thinking has to drive changes in industrial age-mindset companies:

  1. In the industrial age, there were labor unions who acted as interest groups for community who produced goods. The customer had no power as they were fragmented across markets. The information age is creating customer unions where customers come together to rally against companies which do injustice to them, their enviroment, their community, unfair business relationship & services etc. 
  2. The labor unions could take the cause of only one company, theortically speaking. But, customer unions can have members across different products/brands across geographies and pose a larger threat.
  3. The customer unions are self-engaging members who pose a potential threat to companies who undermine their power.
  4. The customer unions can come together within a few hours and disrupt the brand reputation built over years by companies.
  5. The customer unions have the power of internet, social media to engage & collaborate for this cause and will disengage once the cause is achieved.
  6. If there were union leaders who drove the labor unions, here there are customer leaders who drive the opinions and issues. Companies need to identify them as they emerge from time to time for different reasons. But address them with agility.
  7. Authencity and honesty will be the hallmark of successfully handling these customer unions and companies need to find new innovative methods of handling them openly & with transparency.

It's time companies and marketing departments realize this and find new ways of truly engaging with customers and their opinions.




Data is mine but we as consumers undermined it first!

There is a great article in Time Magazine which talks about "How companies know everything about you?".

There are many relevant points that are being made there but I really don't concur with all the blame &  privacy issues that are being made in the article. I agree with the need for privacy of my data and of course, am against littering of my personal information. But, before we jump of the hook and start  blaming the internet, industry leaders like google, facebook, twitter &  other data marketing companies, we as consumers need to think about the following points:

  1. Free email : There is nothing called a free lunch right? When you have a free email id which you have  opted to take and use extensively, the companies need to find a business model to make money. Hence, they decided to build a business model around targeted advertising using the content and information that you access. The money they earn is being used to store our email data, provide uninterrupted access to your email, maintain the infrastructure etc. So, are we as consumers ready to pay for such services and also therefore define or give information access, rights to these companies on our terms? 
  2. Customer aggregation platforms have done it for decades, so what's the stress?:  Television, radio station, newspapers did it for decades. The content that consumers watched on TV was subsidized by advertisers, broadcasters & electronic appliance companies to name a few - They paid to reach consumers and group of consumers like you. Every interruption of ' your valuable time' when you watch your favourite movies and soap operas is 'invasion of our privacy'. We chose to live with it, till new digital media like internet, mobile came-in. There were no laws to stop this invasion of privacy. The new media companies have now found a new method to hawk this information. Are we as consumers ready to pay subscription charges for such content and define access rights for this information on our terms?
  3. Intermediation leads to social litter, disintermediation protects it: Any intermediator, we know, controls the information, prices and margins. This has happened time and again to us as consumers. The farmer faced this many decades ago as he could not get the right prices for his produce as the intermediators held them to ransom till disintermediators intervened and build an efficient supply chain. The banks are the age-old intermediators who have made pots of profits( and they make it still) by making money on our money!  I see many social media platforms as intermediators - I never was able to connect with my friends who I had lost for ever till they came-in and made it easy. I see it as a huge a benefit. But, the information they hold is a goldmine and they have to find ways to monetize it to remain in business. Are we as consumers willing to pay for being members of these social platforms - even a couple of cents, if we really find them valuable and beneficial? Therefore, we can define access rights to these platforms on our information on our terms? 

To conclude, what I see around me emerging is businesses like information vaults, personal information utlities (PIUs) firms like allow, Personal which talk the right language of consumer control but as a consumer I would like to know what are their terms of agreement with my preferred platforms - social media, TV, email service provider, communities on the Net am a member of, financial services provider, govt.( they trade social security nos. for a price too!) etc.. There needs to be terms of transparency, terms of portability, terms of usage, terms of enagement   etc. before we as consumers jump-in and start embracing these platforms.

Else, this will be a case of one more of the many fads that  we will fall into and we will undermine our data once again!


Dear customer, you are downgraded!

I recently received a mail from my favourite airline Jet Airways, that I have been downgraded! I am a member of their loyalty program for years now! And this is not the first time this has happened to me. It also happened in 2001 and 2002 too.

The letter read - "...since you have not had enough flights with us, you will be downagraded. Our Dynamic Tier Review (DTR) formula, unique to Jet Airways - DTR is an award winning, multi-period and multi-criteria-based tier review. It has no precedent anywhere in the world. With DTR, upgrade to the higher tier is quicker and tier renewal is easier. The DTR evaluates a member's tier based on Tier Points and Tier JPMiles earned....."

I was disappointed. As a customer, it did not matter to me if the DTR was award winning for Jet Airways! It surely did not work for me ( the downgrade letter was templated too with such high sound words and sentences!). 

It made me think about the structure of current loyalty programs across the world and their relevance when loyal customers like me are click away from the next best offer!

Here are some questions that came to my mind:

  1. In a year of recession and tough 2 years for business, I was suprised how the DTR did not take care of this business environment. I did'nt fly so much as Jet would have wanted. So, Jet's view of my loyalty is transcational - fly more( at full price or premium prices and get rewarded more!). I too will behave the same way in the future, I presume. Question #1: Can't loyalty programs be flexible, adapt to new environment, and why reward only transactional loyalty?
  2. Given the unsettling business environment that it was over the last 2 years, why would me even as a "fiercely" loyal customer, travel in Jet if the fares were not competitive. Finally, if there is no value, loyalty cannot be bought with points. Question # 2: When there is a challenge of intrinsic value in the product,  will loyalty progams deliver - No. It is better to focus on the product rather than upset customers. Companies must know, customers will move on in such circumstances!
  3. I have been surprised with their loyalty program  not paying attention to customer experience, in spite of being a Citibank-Jet Platinum card member. Every time redeeming their upgrade vouchers was a pain. The little travel that I did in these 2 years, whenever I presented the voucher, I was told it was applicable only on full price tickets! Funny, not sure what world they were living in. Question # 3: Do companies that run loyalty programs pay attention to  such little details that affect customer experience? They took trouble  a few years back to invite me to their co-branded card, but forgot to look at my spends and credits to give me waivers at such tough recessionary period.The bank has no clue, whatsover.

Loyalty programs are still in their 1.0 version.  Imagine a product that has not changed for 25 years! They still are in an old world order - "spend with us to earn rewards". Sometimes they have to recognize the value that customers get when they are out shopping for options, may not justfiy the reward they earn everytime if they have to stay within these products/brands. They need to transform given the new environment and options in front of customers.

Customer seek value and surely are willing to pay premium for loyalty but recognition, surprises and instant gratification will need to be weaved into these programs - on the assumption value needs to be earned in the customer's mind & wallet.

Rest assured, this is not a rant but earnestly these are thoughts that I had in my mind and coming out of experiences I have had with such programs over time.