Chip R. Bell is a customer loyalty consultant and a senior partner with the Chip Bell Group, a firm he founded in 1980. A renowned keynote speaker, he serves as consultant to several Fortune 100 companies. He is the author or co-author of several best-selling books including Take Their Breath Away, Magnetic Service, Managing Knock Your Socks Off Service, Customers as Partners and Managers as Mentors. His newest book (with John R. Patterson) is Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What to do About it.

Are We Facing a Customer Revolution?

By Chip Bell

Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What To do About it; co-authored by Chip Bell and John R. Patterson

The news of late has been littered with dramatic reports about revolutions in the Middle East and Africa.  Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Yemen…the list grows long.  All were fueled by similar events—anger citizens frightened by challenging economic circumstances and emboldened by network to channel rebellion into uprising.  We all studied the French Revolution in school.  Its elements provide an interesting parallel with what is happening with the Middle East revolutions as well as the customer today.

The French Revolution was triggered by a series of events that led to the storming of the Bastille to release long-held political prisoners. Only the common people were paying taxes; nobles and clergy were exempt. The price of France’s participation in the American Revolution had taken a heavy financial toll. Then, King Louis XVI helped bankrupt the French government by spending lavishly on his court at Versailles. In response, the French government attempted to squeeze even more revenue from already cash-strapped citizens.

Meanwhile, the writings of Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau, which focused on the worth of all people, were gaining popularity. As French soldiers who fought in the American Revolution returned to France, they brought with them incendiary stories of the fight for liberty and equality. These smoldering ideas required little more to spark revolt. When Queen Marie Antoinette was told that the common people were without bread, she supposedly remarked “Let them eat cake!” Rumor of her haughty insensitivity spread through the streets, inciting even peace-loving citizens to take up arms.

What does this French history lesson tell us? 

For anyone with a customer: Signs of change can emerge unexpectedly.  Alarm bells are ringing for us. Customers who have more choices and more smarts, and who have experienced great service from some, now expect the same standards from everyone. The bar has been raised.  Research indicates customer expectations are 33% higher than a year ago.

But there are more parallels than simply rising expectations. Like other revolutions, today’s customers are frightened by the recent recession and still anxiously hear unemployment statistics akin to a depression.  Friends lose their jobs and then take months and months to find a job at a lower economic station.  Just like other recessions, today’s customers are frustrated—this time by the manner high touch has been removed from high tech service deliver like self-service, automation, and web-based applications.  Sure, they enjoy the ease of around-the-clock access. 

But, when it fails, it feels like being in a stuck elevator with no phone.

The other feature today’s customers share with revolution-prone citizens is the capacity to be emboldened with their new-found muscle of social media.  Word of mouse has five times the power as word of mouth.  Think of it as word of mouth on steroids.  Facebook accounts exceed 500 million people, each with an average of 130 friends.  Fifty-nine percent of customers use social media to vent anger about their experience; seventy-two percent sometimes research a provider’s customer care reputation on line prior to purchasing; and 62 percent stop or avoid using that provider based on results.

The smoldering heat of impending customer revolution can be quelled.  Smart organizations diffuse customer anger and anxiety by crafting their processes and practices from a partnership perspective. They demonstrate total honesty; impeccable reliability; authentic inclusion; empowered, knowledgeable front line employees; and, service recovery that focuses on healing a relationship, not just on fixing a problem. 

Consider award-winning Sure, you can do all your buying without communicating with a soul. But, every Zappos web page has a deliberate invitation to interact. When the customer clicks to talk, they get over-the-top attention, customized communication, and a live rep who wants to be your new best friend.  It is the perfect blend of self-service with full service that respects the customer while bolstering convenience and cost savings.  And, they have the growth and profits to prove it.

Imagine how quickly the peasants of France could have organized the French Revolution had all of them had a Facebook, Foursquare, or a Linked-In account! Or, if the French writers of messages of resistance had been able to blog their dissent for all to read in real time, thus coordinate a flash demonstration, boycott, or protest. Wired to an army of like-minded people looking for answers, today’s customers can be dangerous to any service provider unwilling to understand what customers want, adapt to the way they want it, and deliver what they find of value.

 “Revolution is not the uprising against preexisting order,” wrote Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, “but the setting up of a new order contradictory to the traditional one.” Out of turbulent economic times comes a new order. Those who fail will be those brought down by failing to modify their patterns and practices. Those who succeed will be the ones who embrace the opportunity by shifting their outlook and their operation.