18 May 2009 8:20 am   //   Filed under: It's a trap!

Permission granted to ignore your customers

If I sauntered into a Sears and shouted, “If you don’t lower your prices on housewares, I’m leaving!,” would Sears lower its prices? No.

If I came back with 30 friends and staged a protest inside the Sears, would we be arrested? Probably.

Why, then, should Amazon.com listen to customers who whine about the high cost of books for the Kindle? The individual customer doesn’t set the price, the market does.

You might think the Internet is breeding this great new wave of consumer rights, where customers have a dialogue with companies, and everyone is better for it. The problem is the feedback loops on the Internet tend to ignore complex problems, and amplify simple whining.

Facebook keeps making changes in response to customer complains from mass mobs of customers who barely know what they’re talking about. And Facebook is a free serviceā€”a gift! When all you have to do is click “yes” to protest something, it’s easy to transform a bunch of ambivalent users into a scary, angry mob a million strong. Flickr users figured out how absurd this is a few years ago, and set up jokey groups demanding that Flickr hand out free donuts.

Where is the example of an online mob identifying and solving a real problem? (Food safety and factory working conditions are real problems; the design of a juice carton or the tastefulness of some company’s advertising are not.) I can’t think of one.

The dialogues between customers and companies must get more sophisticated. Otherwise everybody is going to waste time fighting unwinnable battles.