The Roar of the Customer

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CrowdWe hear a lot about the voice of the customer. Not that the customer has been silent all these years and suddenly decided to speak up. Let’s time-travel for some perspective.

Go back to 1900, the turn of the 20th century. Mass production was at hand. The Industrial Economy was in full swing and manufacturing was the thing. When you owned the means of production you had no real need to listen to the customer. You cranked out relatively cheap products and people bought them. Mass production was married to mass consumption. Think Sears, Roebuck & Co. and the company catalog. Customers might have complained if they had more than one product to compare, or a better experience to remember. They did not, and their voice, as far as the manufacturers and retailers were concerned was a soft, almost silent, whisper.

Jump ahead 50 years. We were exploring space, and back here on Earth, we were exploring what it meant to be multinational, conducting business on a flatter planet, in a business climate that was heating up with fewer restrictions, regulations, and taxes. The name of the game went from “Made in America” to “Send to America.” There may have been some noise in the background, a low but insistent buzzing. Some of the customers were getting annoyed yet their voice was a restricted to the “Complaints Department.” Really. There was a “Complaints Department,” with a real person who listened to customers complain all day.

I bought my first personal computer in 1990 (still have it in storage — a Macintosh IIcx, 16 MHz 68030 processor, 1 MB RAM, 1.4 MB SuperDrive, and 40 MB running Microsoft Word 4.0 for the Macintosh). That was when the customer found a new voice, and it started with an unassuming “You’ve Got Mail!”

It was the start of what I call The Idea Economy, and the idea was disintermediation. Start by taking the monkey out of the middle (reference to a pre-digital game called “Monkey-in-the-Middle”), and the manufacturer and customer are suddenly directly connected. Web addresses, starting with “dub-dub-dub” appeared everywhere. The “@” became the cool new business address. Google was about to become a verb, and Amazon, eBay, Apple, Zappo’s, and others were all about The Customer Experience. You didn’t even need to buy anything as long as the experience was “insanely great.”

No need to look at your smartphone, it’s 2012. Manufacturers — and anyone else who serves the customer — time to listen up! The customers have found their voice. There’s only one way to stand out, survive, and thrive in the Idea Economy. The voice of the customer, suddenly amplified by technology, has gone from a whisper to the complaint department to the roar of the crowd.

Do you hear what I’m saying? That’s the idea…

Source: “Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything” by Stephen Levy,
Source: “Why Customer Experience Is The Only Thing That Matters,” Fast Company, 08/13/12