Is The Customer the Enemy?

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 an adversarial one or a cooperative one? 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 right in.

We can name at least four different approaches to arriving at an answer to 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. Unless, of course, displaying 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 thrive 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 towards customers is bound to become well known, especially in an era in which reputation spreads via Facebook and Twitter. Seller beware!

5 comments so far

  1. Kirk on

    Probably a cooperative one, for by cooperating both parties can make themselves better off. Indeed, each party is motivated in part by its own self-interest, yet by cooperating they improve each other.

    Customers cannot be enemies of the businesses they frequent. This isn’t an imperative. It’s moreso a definitional matter. If S sells widgets to B, B helps make S better off and that may be the full extent of their relationship. B couldn’t be A’s enemy because B only helps A.

    At worst, a customer can become uncooperative. That is, B stops buying from S. Yet the point at which B becomes uncooperative is the point at which B can become S’s enemy, but not necessarily becomes an enemy.

    Not all non-customers are enemies. B isn’t S’s enemy on account of B not buying from S. B could be neutral in that B neither helps nor hinders S.

    Yet B can become S’s enemy when B buys from S’s biggest competitor, S2. Perhaps S2 gains a competitive foothold from B shopping there.

    B helping S’s competitor, S2, could hurt S. That would make B S’s enemy. The implicit reason is that your enemy’s supporter is your enemy too.

    The overarching principle is that your own customer can never be your enemy, but your competitor’s customer can be your enemy.

    • Kirk on

      …in the ideal sense where customers always make sellers better off. Perhaps this isn’t always the case. Perhaps in other cases a different analysis is warranted. Perhaps we cannot therefore make blanket statements about customers, but instead must do a more case by case analysis.

  2. Marvin Edwards on

    The customer is never the enemy. The customer is essential to the welfare of the business. A systems analysis text I once read said that you should start by identifying the good that the business was doing in the community by providing its particular products and services.

    The only business that would view the customer as an “enemy” would be a business that survives by taking advantage of it’s customers, like Bernie Madoff or the “snake oil” salesman. And the whole of us need to protect ourselves against these businesses.

  3. […] to be used meaningfully. With this perspective the customer is now an ally rather than the enemy (who must have money extracted from them at every opportunity and every […]

  4. […] meaningfully. With this perspective the customer is now an ally rather than the enemy (who must have money extracted from them at every opportunity and every […]


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