The Customer Is Not Always Right
An example of deindividuation in business
An example of deindividuation in business
“The customer is always right.”
We’ve all heard that line before in business and marketing.
It means that if your product or service is bad, they won’t buy it, so it’s worth trying to make customers happy to secure the sale. Meeting their needs and expectations is your job.
Customers know this and some are likely to take advantage. Leveraging the power of public shame, aggression, and outrage to get what they want.
A free meal.
A refund and apology.
It’s a display of power.
This is, in part, due to the fact that we now live in a connected, anonymous world — with screen names, instant and unlimited user profiles, free review accounts, and unverifiable voices at the end of the telephone.
Previously a complaint had to be said in person, between the business owner and the unhappy customer. Perhaps they lived in the same community. Perhaps they were friends or friends of friends.
Now that businesses are global, we’ve lost that in-person connection between you (as a business owner) and your customer.
How many times, without working there yourself, have you seen a person acting aggressively in a store? Not many, right?
Now, how many times have you seen a negative interaction instigated online towards a company or brand? A lot.
We’ve dehumanised the purchase process and empowered bad behaviour with rewards through fear.
Don’t believe me? Ask to see the manager in a restaurant because of your subjective opinion of a “terrible meal” and see how quickly a free dessert hits your table.
It doesn’t matter that you could be wrong and every other customer that night sang your praises. The cost of a customer leaving unhappy could manifest in:
Outrage on social media.
Negative reviews that influence customers not to go there.
Corporate complaints that could result in disciplinary action.
As businesses, we’ve opened ourselves up to the mob — literally.
Where Could the Customer Be Wrong?
If you’ve ever worked in customer service, you know that practising patience with loud, demanding, abusive, arrogant customers, is essentially entering a zen-like, meditative state.
Not all customers are wrong, but not all customers are right either.
The issue is that a certain number of customers of any business will go from zero to 60 and become completely unreasonable. Reaching all-new levels of rage over what seems like trivial problems.
In my ten years of B2C interactions, a small number of unjustifiably outraged customers can be broken down into these three key areas:
User error. They aren’t using the product or service correctly. They haven’t followed the user instructions or after accidentally missing your last email, they’ve decided it’s your fault.
Financial difficulty. This is where the buyer immediately wants a refund, but the product or service isn’t faulty and holds up to the features and benefits advertised. Once this is pointed out, it often ends with the explanation of their outrage being that they need the money for something else now. Aggression and outrage was their weapon to get it.
Unrealistic expectations. What they expected to receive was far and above what you said you were selling and for the price you were selling it for. It doesn’t matter that 99.9% of customers were happy. This 0.1% viewed the product offering through a distorted lens of their own making, without limitations, and were subsequently enraged. Now that’s your fault and you’ve “ripped them off.”
Of course, there are justifiable complaints about bad products, broken items, incomplete services, etc — but this isn’t about those cases. Only the unjustified ones.
Why Do They Think They Can Act As They Do?
Witnessing this outrage, you start to question the boundaries of human behaviour. Some of the most sadistic, disgusting things are said to you as a representative of a company.
You can’t help but think:
“How can a person treat another person that way over bread?”
“Are they really that mad over an expired gift card, that they want me to lose my livelihood?”
“Should I really ‘go and die’ because their internet is experiencing an outage?”
There’s a psychological theory that explains this behaviour called deindividuation.
Deindividuation is a phenomenon in which people engage in seemingly impulsive, deviant, and sometimes violent acts in situations in which they believe they cannot be personally identified. Groups, crowds, and especially on the internet.
It’s the same phenomenon that explains the riots and looting occurring in the United States right now. A woman is facing “attempted murder” for throwing a Molotov cocktail at a police van during a protest.
She’s probably never broken a law in her life, but got caught up in the anonymity and chaos that surrounded her. She probably thought she’d never be identified and blame would fall on the group and not her as an individual.
This is deindividuation at play.
I was first introduced to this idea when psychological illusionist Derren Brown hosted a TV special called The Experiments.
He had an audience wear masks and vote on how they’d like a stranger’s night to unfold on screen. Time after time, when given anonymity, they chose the negative option and revelled in the man’s discomfort and displeasure. Laughing as he got incorrectly accused of sexual assault and had his personal property smashed with a baseball bat.
The show ended with that same man apparently being hit by a car (accidentally), as a result of their choices. It was all fun and games until someone lost their life.
Despite having the opportunity to give this stranger a pleasurable experience, they chose the pain each and every time — because it wasn’t them as individuals, it was them moving with the mob. Their personal responsibility was diminished and they absolved themselves of any individual blame.
Social media suffers from this same issue. Theorists typically attribute such behaviour to the physical anonymity afforded by computer-mediated communication.
The lack of personal consequences and identification rewards good people for bad behaviour. They can inflict pain but never face the repercussions. Reinforcing this way of getting attention.
How to Reduce the Impact of Deindividuation on Your Business
Usually, misplaced outrage from customers is a reaction to their feelings — feelings and thoughts that they don’t feel you’ll listen to, or absorb fully.
People want to be heard.
Often, the best way to get a big corporation to listen is outrage and aggression. So that’s the route customers feel they need to take.
Your goal should be to individualise customers. Make them feel connected on a human-to-human level. Learn their names and use them. Reach out personally.
Don’t hide behind a faceless screen name on a support account with countless staff sharing the responsibility. Give them your name, your real name. Tell them about yourself and how their comments affected you as a person.
It’s about taking ownership. Show it, take control, and connect with them, person-to-person. Your customers will be happy that they’re finally heard.
Although I can’t do this all of the time, I personally call inexplicably aggressive customers whose anger is misplaced — and you better believe their anger subsides within seconds of picking up the phone. Sometimes, we become friends.
It’s not about who’s right, it’s about giving someone the time to express themselves and their thoughts. They thank me for my time and for letting them be heard and often apologise for their behaviour if it came across as a personal attack.
As soon as you put the human-to-human connection back into the buyer and business relationship, they realise they’re dealing with another person, just like them, and their frustration dissipates.
So whether you run a business or just work at a business, your goal should be to see people as individuals with certain needs and views. Not as a group that you just need to “deal” with.
The customer isn’t always right, but fighting fire with fire won’t help either.
When taking this slower, individualised approach, you’ll often find that your loudest detractors become your loudest brand advocates.
Great customer service is great marketing because it ensures customers publicly defend any mistakes you will make, knowing that you’re more than a company — you’re human.