Blogs & Comment

Is the customer the enemy? — Chris MacDonald

It ... depends

(Photo: Image Source/Jasper White/Getty)

(Photo: Image Source/Jasper White/Getty)

Earlier this week I blogged about the intersection between customer service, ethics, and public relations. I pointed out that when the occasional grouchy remark turns into a pattern of disrespect, customer service becomes a question of ethics, and—in an age of social media—a potential PR nightmare.

But this raises a bigger question about the nature of the relationship between a business and its customers. Is the relationship between buyer and seller appropriately thought of as adversarial or cooperative? Ethically, is it right for a company to think of customers as friends or foes?

There are intuitive reasons on both sides. On one hand, buyer and seller have a shared interest in ‘doing the deal.’ They typically want to do business with each other, and both benefit from the transaction. On the other hand, every dollar a buyer saves is a dollar lost from the seller’s point of view. Every buyer wants a low price and every seller wants a high price, so the conflict is built in.

There are at least four different approaches that can answer this question.

We might try looking at the question from the point of view of everyday ethics: people are people, and we should treat them honestly and with respect regardless of who they are. If fairness is good, then we should promote fairness in commercial transactions, just as we do in other areas of life. And that requires that buyer and seller at least see each other as equals. They don’t have to adopt a cooperative stance, but neither should they be adversarial.

We could instead take an economic approach. From an economic point of view, the interaction between buyer and seller is best understood as a ‘mixed motive’ game. In other words, it’s a game in which the players’ respective rankings of possible outcomes partly coincide and partly diverge. Both players would rather do a deal than not do a deal, but they disagree over what the best deal would be. If you’re in such a game, you should adopt an attitude that is neither fully cooperative nor fully adversarial. The difference between this approach and the one above is that it’s OK to be cooperative or adversarial if one of those attitudes moves the deal in your direction.

Third, we might think about this from the point of view of social conventions. It may well be that in certain cultures it is traditional (and perhaps widely accepted) that buyers and sellers treat each other as adversaries. And perhaps in certain other cultures it is traditional (and expected) that buyers and sellers will treat each other in a more convivial way. There are likely even individual industries typified by one or the other of those conventions. Doctors, for instance, are trained (and incentivized) to adopt a collaborative approach to their patients. Some stock brokers have notoriously adopted an adversarial approach to their clients.

Finally, we might think of this question from the point of view of corporate strategy. In other words, whether you think of your customers as friends or enemies—whether you adopt a collaborative or instead competitive attitude to them—might be a question of what kind of company you want to be. Some companies thrive on aggressive sales tactics; others on a softer, more relationship-driven approach. Seen from this point of view, there’s no single, general answer to the question. Each firm needs to answer it for itself.

Regardless of how you frame the question, and regardless of the answer you arrive at, the attitude your company adopts toward customers is bound to become well known, especially in an era in which reputation spreads via Facebook and Twitter. Seller beware!

Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.