Monday, June 15, 2020

The COVID-19 Dilemma: Remaining Customer-Centric When Customers Expect Incompatible Pandemic Rules

"The Customer is always right." As a customer experience (CX) professional, I've heard that maxim quite a lot. The well-worn adage has never been entirely correct. The customer can be wrong, and knowing when and how to identify and manage that situation requires brands to recognize the distinction between being customer-centric and customer-subservient. Understanding that difference is vital as you consider the right policies to lure customers back to your business while ensuring the safety of customers and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When I say the customer isn't always right, I'm not simply talking about the occasional unreasonable or abusive customer but about the fact "It's not the customer's job to know what they want" (as Steve Jobs is credited with saying). If we acted as if every customer whim is equal, we risk becoming customer-subservient, blindly chasing every consumer impulse. Being customer-centric is a little different--it means making decisions that are in the best interest of your customer.

In normal times, the difference between customer-centric and customer-subservient can seem relatively minor or meaningless, but in times of stress, change, and challenge, the two can be quite different.

Drugstores, Cigarettes and the Difference Between Customer-Subservience and Customer-Centricity

To explore the subservient/centric difference, ask yourself it is customer-subservient or customer-centric for a drugstore chain to sell cigarettes. A drugstore's customer personas include a person who wants to purchase cigarettes regularly, and when they do, they often add other items to their basket. That there is a market to be served is unquestionable, but should a drugstore committed to the health and well-being of its customers sell "cancer sticks"?

For decades, there was no question. I worked my way through high school in a drugstore run by pharmacists, and I never gave a thought to the number of customers to whom I sold products containing a prominent health warning. But then attitudes began to shift, forcing drugstore executives to reconsider their values, brand, and customer-centricity.

Six years ago, the trend toward tobacco-free pharmacies got a boost when CVS became the first national drugstore chain to drop sales of cigarettes. Some of its competitors haven't yet followed suit as they struggle to balance profit versus health or, put another way, weighing customer-subservience versus customer-centricity. A customer-subservient approach suggests a drugstore brand must do what the customer wants provided there's profit to be earned, while a customer-centric mindset considers that "It's not the customer's job to know what they want."

These are sensitive and important decisions, particularly for corporations with a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders. And, of course, people's strong emotions over smoking only make these decisions even more difficult. A drugstore may view the decision to carry cigarettes through the lens of profit versus customer health, but customers often line up on starkly different lines, with liberty and personal choice on one side versus the greater good of the community on the other.

COVID-19, Masks, and Social Distancing

Does any of that feel a bit familiar in the COVID-19 era? It does to brands with physical locations struggling to set the right policies as they reopen. On the one side are people who expect brands to have and enforce safe policies during a global health crisis, and on the other are people who oppose wearing masks and social distancing. Whatever your brand decides will be viewed in starkly partisan ways--either as an affront to freedom and individual rights or a deadly capitulation that risks the health and lives of customers and employees. 

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Azbaby said...

When I say the customer isn't always right, I'm not simply talking about the occasional unreasonable or abusive customer but about the fact "It's not the customer's job to know what they want" (as Steve Jobs is credited with saying)