Sunday, July 08, 2012

Is customer the king?

In marketing classes, we generally hear “customer is the king”. He is the one who chooses which brand to buy among so many choices and pays money that brands are after. So, brand should do everything to satisfy the customer. Wish every brand in this world followed this belief and world would have been a happy place to live in. In this post I like to challenge this belief and show that "customer is at the mercy of brand."
This thought came to my mind last month when I visited an Airtel Relationship Centre after I lost my mobile. I saw so many angry consumers who were trying to blast off the customer care executives.

Competition or Monopoly
First myth for why customer is the king is because the customer is said to have choices from many offerings from competing brands. But in reality the various constraints brings the consumer choices down to a few, one or none. A few examples, I faced with choosing brands

  • My factory is located in a village where only Airtel network is available. BSNL is the only wired broadband service available at our town.
  • I need to get a uniform stitched for the employees and all the tailors are busy and have order books that will keep them occupied for next 2 months. The same can be said about any service including civil construction, steel fabrication, electrical wiring, plumbing, chartered accountancy, graphics designing, printing and so on.
  • I needed a seemingly common item i.e. a stainless steel ball valve and there was only one hardware retailer stocking it in Dakshina Kannada District.
  • There is nobody willing to do erection and commissioning of 400 kg/hr small industrial steam boiler as per IBR rules.

Just like we chose which brand to buy, even brands choose which consumer to sell. For example, I make an enquiry for a packing materials, immediate question the sales man asks me is how much quantity do I want. If it is not big enough, he will reject me and move on.

Money or Value
Brands offer value to consumers for which they pay money. Consumers want value that brands offer much more than the money they are paying. It is lot easier to pay money than to create value. Example, it is much easier for a passenger to fly from Mumbai to Delhi paying Rs. 5,000 than it is to arrange for that flight by a Jet Airways. So, it is wrong to assume that having money to spend is a big deal.

Bonded forever
Once you go with a brand, you have to live with him for a long time. Not so with a brand, he can ditch you anytime. I was casually talking to a machine manufacturer. He was talking about a customer who didn’t pay on time and how he can avenge against him by charging a high price for an add-on feature that he would definitely require in future.

People ultimately manage brands and they have different motivations than what the brand promises. Brand might want to give the best product or service or experience to the consumer and earn maximum profit in return. But the person acting on behalf of the brand wants to put in minimum work and earn maximum money for himself. Those people working at the Airtel Relationship centre have no sympathy for the troubles you are facing with Airtel Service. Meaning his goals are not aligned with that of the consumer. They don’t care whether you will stick with Airtel service. Meaning his goals are not even aligned with the company he is working.

Different faces during different phases
Initially when a brand is selling its offering, it is his salesman who is representing the brand. Salesmen are very nice people to its prospects because they want to pocket your money. Once the money goes into the pocket, the consumer requires product or service and then the salesman goes out of picture and support and servicemen come into picture, who are not so nice people because then the customer needs them and makes them work hard.

Consumer Protection
It is again a myth that the consumer is well protected by Law through consumer protection acts. Always businesses are more legal savvy than an average consumer. They will always have a lawyer with them, government officials are close to them. Before getting into any sort of relation with a consumer they will always get tons of signatures on agreement papers. On those papers the terms are written in a way that are only favour the brand. Consumers out of desperation of getting the service, blindly sign on them, without reading, questioning and negotiating the terms. Even in case of disputes where the brand is wrong, the consumer rarely finds time, energy and know-how to fight the brand in the court of law that mostly delays and denies justice.

How can consumers cope with this reality?
The consumer must understand his weakness, understand what motivates brands and people who work for brands, lower his expectations, not get too attached, exhibit patience while dealing and do adequate research before choosing.

Good news for consumers though is that brands are getting more friendly out of their own interest for their own good and technology is enabling them.