The Power of Me

Seinfeld was revolutionary in television entertainment because there were no happy endings each week. The producers held a fast rule of “no hugging, no learning”.   From the beginning of the sitcom genre in the late 1940’s with shows like I Love Lucy, it was mandatory that there was always a happy ending. Every character conflict was neatly wrapped up in a bow by the end of the half hour episode.  But Seinfeld and his co-creator Larry David decided to go a different way.  They portrayed people much more like they really were.  And the audience loved it because every week they got a small glimpse of themselves.

Seinfeld brilliantly captured the essence of the Power of Me.  It’s all about moi. What matters the most is what I think.  My opinion matters more than yours.  My self-interest is at the root of my daily decisions in virtually every area of life.  I’m in charge.  I worship myself and I expect you to do it, too.  If you want my business, you will listen to me.

The Power of Me is rooted in the simple fact that these customers have the need to exert control over some aspect of their lives.  Who to better want to boss around than companies they choose to give their money to?  This sense of control can quickly grow out of control and become dictatorial.  No doubt, an entitlement mentality drives some of this phenomenon.  But here’s the thing:  these self-obsessed people also can broadcast their opinions about the companies with which they deal.  The Customer CEO owns devices loaded with social media tools that give them the ability to amplify their individual voice into a movement overnight.  They can and will do it when you least expect it.   Social media uprisings are now common when organizations lose their way.

Crazy Customers

How should a company think about this Power of Me?  Unfortunately, far too often, I see an attitude of “our customers are crazy”.  Recently, a Chief Marketing Officer of a large insurance company told me that their “consumers” were “certifiably insane.”   He based his conclusions upon a recent customer satisfaction survey in which his company had performed quite poorly.   He meant it.  “They don’t even understand how their policies work,” he sniffed. 

Since his company distributes their products through independent agents, he only sees the sales force as his real customers.  Those pesky drivers, horrible homeowners and lousy life insurance policyholders just consume.  They pay their little premiums and file their petty claims.  Sadly, his attitude is not that unusual.  It reflects the attitude often held in the c-suite of every size of enterprise.  Rather than see it as an opportunity to teach their customers, it was just easier to dismiss them.  Of course, they have no problem cashing their premium checks every month.

I believe the word “consumer” demeans the people who choose to do business with your brand or anyone representing your brand like an agent. Consumer in its original meaning was someone who squandered or wasted, hardly a respectful way to describe a mutually beneficial relationship. Customer is the more honorable word, acknowledging that the person had a choice of which company to deal with.  In today’s world, choice is an understatement.  If you think of your customers like the insurance guy, you are making a big mistake.  Simply put, a customer is the person who writes the check, debits an account, or barters a chicken.  They are the me. 

Let’s return to George Costanza.  In one memorable episode, he needed to read “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” for a book club he joined. But in typical George fashion, reading the book required too much effort.  He decided to watch the movie version but learned the video store’s only copy had been checked out.   He invited himself to the people’s home and convinced them to let him watch the movie with them. As an uninvited guest, George felt he was entitled to something to “nosh”, like popcorn.   

George Costanza was, no doubt, everyone’s customer from hell.  He attempted to cheat at every opportunity.  I lost count of the number of restaurants and stores George was thrown out of over the entirety of the series.  Do customers like George deserve our respect or our wrath?

Here’s the interactive part of the newsletter.

Let’s do a quick exercise I call The George Quiz. Get two pieces of paper.  I want you to write down on the first page what you really think of your customers.  No, I mean really think of them.  Picture George (or whomever comes to mind) and list everything you despise about him (or her).  Feel free to take a few minutes to get this off your chest. Completely.  Go ahead and vent. Write down every adjective and phrase that comes to mind.  Feel better?

Okay, now that you have done that, I want you to set that aside and write down what you think your customers really think of you on the other page. On your worst days. What poisonous things have they texted, tweeted, or reviewed?  I bet that was a much shorter list.  That’s because we are programmed to not hear genuinely negative feedback.

I understand how easy it can be to fall into the trap of blaming the customer.  The increased stress most executives feel is daunting.  Between unrelenting technology, increased competition, and more pressure than ever for positive financial performance, someone is bound to get the blame.  The easiest target is George Costanza, the demanding, unreasonable customer hardly worthy of our valuable time. 

Wisdom tells us that they are the customer, they have the money, and we probably need to look in the mirror about our own performance before we point fingers back at them.