The customer is king. Everyone in the business takes that old saw as gospel. But is this tenet still true today? Is the customer always right?
After all, we know that monarchs can be little tyrants. Every retailer or service provider deals with “problem children”: The customer who takes this expression literally and demands to be treated like royalty; the shopper who loves to try on shoes for hours and then leaves empty-handed; the “serial wardrober” who buys a gown for a wedding and then conveniently returns it just after the event; the Airbnb renter who leaves behind a sink full of dirty dishes; the deadbeat client for whom the check is always “in the mail”; and let’s not forget the handsy diner who shamelessly abuses waitresses.
So, is the customer always right? Not anymore. A bit of a palace coup is in the making. It’s quite the rage these days for customers to vent about frustrating experiences with waiters, salespeople, physicians and other service providers on sites like Yelp and Facebook. But turnabout is fair play. Providers increasingly are returning the favor as they acquire the ability to rate customers as well.
In the “old days,” employees could only vent to one another on forums like Customers Suck. But change is in the air: A newer, more public way to get revenge is brewing. The process of social scoring that allows social media users to compliment or diss others is becoming more prevalent. As I discuss in my new book, this transparency may disrupt not only the service economy–it also may obliterate the traditional power disparity between buyer and seller. Suddenly, the customer also has to think hard about how today’s nasty behavior will influence tomorrow’s reputation – and access to the products or services he or she needs.
What do I mean by social scoring? We’re most familiar with this concept in the context of rating a person’s level of online influence, e.g. his or her number of followers, retweets, etc. Indeed a cottage industry has sprung up as vendors like Klout, Brandwatch Audiences and Skorr offer measurement systems to rate and rank influencers.
These days, it’s good to be king–of the influencers. Endorsement deals and invites to exclusive venues await. But what about the rest of us who fall short? What if our scores are too low to be cool? The sci-fi series Black Mirror gives a chilling glimpse of a world where our access to retail services depends upon how favorably others rate us. In the “Nosedive” episode, people rate virtually all of their interactions with others on a one to five point scale, and these ratings are visible to everyone. Your rating determines access to goodies like luxury apartments, express lines at banks, airline tickets and so on. Even an accident like spilling coffee on a passerby can tank your score and consign you to social (and consumer) oblivion if he or she posts about your incompetence.
How close are we to this reality? Of course we’re not there yet–but we do freely lavish praise and criticism on individuals and organizations via platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Already some critics see signs of a social media caste system where (as Black Mirror predicted) higher ratings will lead to preferential treatment.
For now most of the focus is on our financial behaviors. The Australian firm Lodex wants to award customers a score based upon 12,000 data points gleaned from their digital footprints, such as the bills they pay late and how rapidly they respond to emails. The Chinese are farther along: The government already is working on a Social Credit System that will score its citizens to determine eligibility for jobs, schools, air travel, and even access to upscale hotels.
But this could only be the beginning, as financial credit starts to bleed into street cred. Already, Sesame Credit, the financial wing of Alibaba partnerswith Baihe, China’s biggest matchmaking service, to feature clients with good credit scores prominently on its dating website. The Chinese of course are not the only ones who equate financial success with romantic potential. As John Wasik reported in Fortune.com, in one bankrate.com survey, “42% of Americans say that knowing someone’s credit score would have an impact on their interest in dating them.” Indeed, the dating site CreditScoreDating.com proclaims, “Good Credit is Sexy!” As one financial advisor put it, “Credit scores are like the dating equivalent of a sexually transmitted disease test. It’s a shorthand way to get a sense of someone’s financial past the same way an S.T.D. test gives some information about a person’s sexual past.”
Financial institutions have long recognized the need to fire some of their least profitable customers, and some consultants acknowledge (at least privately) that working with a toxic client may not be worth the aggravation. But the big news is that as social scoring apps proliferate, retailers and service providers can get in the game as well. Social scoring lets them assign grades to their customers. Amazon is catching some heat now for revoking Prime memberships from customers who return too many items (apparently without informing them beforehand about this policy). Down the road, needy shoppers may get blackballed. Hotel guests who trash their rooms and sloppy drunk taxi riders may get banned. Unruly passengers at TSA airport security checkpoints? There’s already a list for that.
New digital platforms, and especially those linked to the sharing economy, hasten the advent of customer scoring. Open Table bans people from using its service if they don’t show for too many reservations. At Airbnb, you have to make the case for your worthiness to stay at an owner’s place. Uber and Lyft share rider ratings with other drivers, who may choose not to pick up a passenger with an unsavory record. (By the way, some valuable advice–in case you need it–to avoid a bad grade, direct from an Uber driver: “Don’t puke in or ruin the car.”)
So far it doesn’t seem that retail and service businesses have thought much about the potential impact of this reverse rating process, but the ramifications are huge if everyone has to be on their best behavior. It could be just a matter of time before overly demanding patients need to locate doctors who will agree to put up with them; customers who like to yell at repairmen have no one to fix their leaking toilets; and perhaps even students who email their professor at 2:00 a.m. with urgent questions about assignments that were due two weeks ago get banned from registering for classes (OK, that last one is a fantasy of mine that I just threw in there).
I may only be scratching the tip of the iceberg here. There are opportunities for new scoring services that aggregate customers’ ratings across platforms and sell that data to retailers and service businesses. Ironically, consumers may have to woo providers, just as businesses court customers today. Someday your Good Customer Score may be as valuable as your Klout Score.
You can also put a more positive spin on the future of social scoring. Reward your best customers who bring home a good report card. Depending on your business, there are various metrics you can use–complaining behavior, credit scores, frequency of product returns, etc. The debate about the merits of paying students for good grades has raged for years. Maybe the time is ripe to reward well-behaved grownups as well. Down with the tyrants, up with the nobility.
Michael R. Solomon, Ph.D.
Forbes June 4, 2018