Customers Aren’t Just Right. They Also Have All The Power

Even the most ordinary item has the potential to be improved if you just look at it through fresh eyes–those of the people who really use it.

Customers Aren’t Just Right. They Also Have All The Power

What is innovation, really? It is improving something that already is, not creating something new. New creation is invention.


Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone; Steve Jobs innovated with the iPhone. Everything, no matter how mundane, can be improved to benefit customers.

For instance, everyone who has ever flown has used the ordinary airline boarding pass. It’s just some information printed on paper that ends up being discarded millions of times a day. Passengers just accept what is spit out of a check-in kiosk or what they print from their computers before heading to the airport. From the passenger’s point of view, a boarding pass should have, at a minimum, the flight number, the gate, the seat number, and the boarding time. But, if you are like me, you might have trouble actually reading one as you are rushing down a dimly lit airport concourse.

After graphic designer Tyler Thompson became frustrated with a hard-to-read boarding pass, he created the Boarding Pass Fail blog both to vent and to create an open forum for like-minded designers to create better solutions. Thompson wrote about the plight of most passengers in the voice of an airline: “You’re confused, lost, and just want to get on your flight, it’s cool we don’t really care, and we sure as hell don’t want to make this process easy and enjoyable for you. Instead we hired a small, blind parakeet to lay out your boarding pass, you know, just to keep you guessing. Have fun.”

Thompson and a host of other designers took it upon themselves to design boarding passes that were easier to read, with clearer layouts, larger fonts, and better color palettes. Thompson’s innovation was developed to solve a specific set of customer problems. It proves that even the most ordinary item has the potential to be improved if you just look at it through fresh eyes.

But, sadly, airlines are particularly bad about listening to their customers, much less looking for innovative ideas from them about how to improve the customer experience.

Take Dave Carroll as an example. Who’s Dave Carroll? He’s the Canadian musician who decided to tell the world about United Airlines destroying his guitar. I can think of no better example of a real-life “David versus Goliath on the platform” than Dave Carroll. After getting zero satisfaction from United, he wrote a song, shot a video, and posted it to YouTube. “United Breaks Guitars” went viral and became an instant hit. It had more than 12 million views. Carroll sang, “You broke it and should fix it, you might as well admit it, I should have flown with someone else or gone by car, ’cause United breaks guitars.”


Of course, United Airlines isn’t the only company that doesn’t understand the Power of the Platform. Progressive Insurance’s brand was damaged in a controversial case in which the company refused to pay the claim of a deceased policyholder. The brother of the deceased posted an epic rant about the company called “My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer in Court.” The company reacted badly, with an insensitive public relations spin. The platform pushed back. Even after the company and family settled, angered people continued to post scathing comments like this on Progressive’s Facebook page: “Hey look at that, you agreed to pay off the claim the family was originally entitled to. All it took was losing a trial, a media firestorm, and the impending loss of countless customers.”

It’s stories like these that make a lot of executives cringe and defer meaningful discussions about understanding and engaging the Power of the Platform. When I work with companies, I continue to hear the same eight reasons from leadership about why paying attention to the platform is not worth the time and investment.

  • It’s a fad.
  • There’s no return on investment.
  • It will only damage our brand’s reputation.
  • The company lacks time or resources to do it right.
  • We can’t control the message.
  • We’re afraid of making mistakes.
  • Our staff lacks experience.
  • We don’t really care about what they are saying.

In his book The Now Revolution, author Jay Baer explained how things have changed: “If a customer had a problem with a company, she would send a letter or an email, or perhaps she would call a toll-free number. The company would hear the customer’s complaint, consider its merits, and take an action in response. That action was often less than immediate. In the case of mailed complaint letters, receiving a response from a company in 30 days or more wasn’t considered unusual or unresponsive. And all of these interactions took place in private. Not anymore.”

This slow response and often outright indifference has created pent-up demand for a platform that lets customers “get even” and balance the power. The good news is that more companies are changing their attitudes about what’s happening on the platform, including clothing retailer L.L.Bean. The company noticed that a popular fitted sheet was getting many negative online reviews, so it decided to remove the sheets from the website until it learned the cause of the problem. The vendor had made a manufacturing mistake that was causing the fabric to fail. L.L.Bean’s chief marketing officer Steve Fuller said, “Before, it would have taken us months and months to figure out if something was wrong with the product through returns, if we ever would have known at all.”

This platform represents two major opportunities for companies. First, by closely listening to and engaging with people, you can gain hundreds of fresh insights that you can use for improving your brand’s marketing and customer service, not to mention improved product ideas. Second, you can enhance the customer experience by being transparent and hearing the criticism. Unfortunately, for too many companies the temptation is to just talk the talk. These companies prefer to focus on what they are selling versus what the customer really needs or thinks.

Adapted excerpt from Customer CEO: How to Profit from the Power of Your Customers by Chuck Wall (bibliomotion books + media, April 2013).

[Image: Flickr user Ivan McClellan]