By: Michael McQueen
The annuls of history make it very clear that power has generally belonged to organizations – from religious institutions to government bureaucracies and corporate behemoths.
There have certainly been various ‘Davids’ who have stood up to their respective Goliaths and managed to temporarily upset the status quo and gain an upper hand. But these cases were exceptional in every sense of the word – most of the time, the individual lacked the power.
Today, the opposite is true. Recent years have seen the balance of power shift rapidly away from organizations and to the individual. There are 3 tools of empowerment that cannot be underestimated by leaders and organizations aiming to build trust in the years ahead.
1. Access to Information
If there is one piece of technology that has enabled the empowerment enjoyed by consumers today, it would have to be the smartphone. The average consumer today is merely a few taps or swipes away from more information than entire nations possessed a few decades ago.
And this is exactly what they do. Consider the fact that 81% of consumers today will have researched a product online before entering the store. The consumer will likely know more about product’s features and price comparability than the store assistant they are speaking to. Businesses must adjust to this uncomfortable new norm.
The world’s tech giants have already responded to this trend. Microsoft’s digital assistant Cortana, for example, advises customers of the best price and availability of similar products across dozens of major retailers when they are looking at a product online. At a moment’s notice, you can check if shopping through a competitor’s website will offer you a better deal.
Not to be outdone, Google has also been leveraging the power of augmented reality to give consumers access to real-time information that will inform their purchasing decisions. Among other things, Google Lens allows consumers to point their smartphone camera at any business or product and instantly have reviews, ratings and price comparisons pop up on their screen.
Considering how important access to information is to consumer empowerment, there is every chance the coming years will see Internet connectivity designated as a key human right. The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression has gone as far as to suggest that disconnecting people from the Internet constitutes a human rights violation and Estonia has even passed the world’s first law enshrining this right.
Consumers know more than ever before and there is little that companies and professionals can do to change it. What lesson for businesses is that survival in today’s information age depends on radical transparency.
2. An Array of Options
In their book How Companies Win, authors Rick Kash and David Calhoun suggest that the twentieth-century model for business success centered on protecting, controlling and defending distribution channels at all costs. They point to companies such as AT&T, Ford and IBM that succeeded by doing just this. In the years to come, however, a protectionist approach simply won’t work. The days of controlling the market by restricting options are over.
Just as direct-to-market platforms like Purplebricks have changed the game for real estate agents, the age of ‘disintermediation’ means that consumers have the option to deal directly with service providers by circumventing the established channels of old.
Take travel agents for instance. Almost half of the respondents in a wide-ranging survey indicated that when researching a trip online, they prefer purchasing travel services such as accommodation, flights or tours directly from the supplier rather than through a travel agent.
The age of empowered consumers means product and service providers can no longer simply be gatekeepers standing between suppliers and end users. On the contrary, middlemen must be adding real value if they hope to remain indispensable rather than become irrelevant.
3. A Voice
In early November 2014, Tony and Jan Jenkinson checked out of the Broadway Hotel in the seaside resort town of Blackpool on England’s north-west coast. Presumably, their experience at the Broadway was less than amazing: they promptly posted a review on TripAdvisor describing the hotel as ‘rotten’ and ‘stinking’. And that was the end of the story — or so the Jenkinson’s thought.
To their surprise, a few days later they discovered a £100 charge on their credit card from the Broadway Hotel. When they rang to query the unexpected transaction, the hotel manager promptly informed them that it was company policy to charge £100 for negative reviews. When they asked the hotel manager if he was joking, he informed them that he certainly was not. When the Jenkinson’s took their story to the media, things quickly escalated. In the face of widespread outrage, the Broadway Hotel eventually bowed to public pressure, offering to refund the £100 fee and scrap the policy.
Apart from breaching local contract fairness regulations, the Broadway Hotel’s behaviour revealed a mindset dangerously out of step with the modern age — the belief that businesses can control their brand. While this may have been the case in years past, consumers today have a voice that has never been louder, more persuasive or harder to ignore.
There was a time when a consumer’s voice only travelled so far. Today, online review sites and social media provide endless amplification for the customer’s voice, and on top of that, people listen. 90% of consumers trust peer reviews while only 14% trust advertisements. In other words, what you say about yourself and your products matters less than it ever has before. In contrast, what your customers say about you speaks volumes.
Today, the dynamic between big organisations and ordinary individuals no longer resembles the David and Goliath image we have grown used to. With greater access to information than ever, an ever-increasing array of options and an endlessly amplified voice, customers have the power. The businesses that survive will be those that prioritise radical transparency and unshakeable trust.