Have You Become The Devil Your Customers Know?

Google ‘habit’ and you will be told that it is an involuntary behaviour controlled by the subconscious mind, which governs 40 – 90% of an individual’s behaviour. While we tend to fixate on our bad habits, we don’t often conduct an appraisal of our general habits which, it is generally agreed, break down into a self-perpetuating cycle of cue, behaviour/routine and reward.

An apt summer holiday illustration is the relationship that many people have with their holidays – returning yearly to the same hotel, the scene of notable summer memories. Why that hotel got chosen originally may slip the memory bank, but the habit of returning year after year is more likely to be the result of the habit cycle.

Perhaps, on that first stay, the visitor took note of those ‘small touches’ – thoughtful ‘extras’ in the room, a ‘nothing is too much trouble’ attitude’ etc – are the cues which form holidaying habits. Mess with the formula however – starting to charge for those little extras for example or changing the management style – and loyal customers will often react. Some will shrug and accept (albeit with some complaint) but decide it’s better the devil you know. However, for others, it will be just the nudge to shake them from the complacency of habit and review their arrangements for next year.

Do Your Customers Come Back to You Out of Habit?

Neither of these scenarios is ideal for a business. A lost account is a worst case scenario, but maintaining accounts because you’re the devil they know isn’t great either. All it takes is for a new arrival to do things differently, and with accompanying dynamism and allegiances shift. This is a pattern that repeats in business and as exciting upstarts become the tired establishment, collateral damage can result in customer loss. For an example of this occurring at corporate level, the story of Kodak is fascinating – complacency took them from a household name to obscurity in a few short years.

The American NBC series The Office, starring Steve Carell, ran from 2005 to 2013. Building on the mockumentary format, it presented a somewhat kinder face than the British original. For eight years it detailed the trials, tribulations and everyday mundanity of office life at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. Viewed today, this mockumentary now makes for interesting viewing as a documentary of changing times. Over the period in which the series runs, office culture underwent a major upheaval, particularly in terms of how business interacted with technology.

One of the 2007/8 season storylines follows the rise of a young intern (Ryan) to company exec as the youthful driver of a new company website project seen as key to reviving the company’s fortunes. This sets him at odds with Carell’s character, Michael Scott, who is an old school salesman who believes in the importance of people relationships. Having lost clients to corporate rivals Michael’s solution is to win them back by appealing to them as people – hand delivering gift baskets, declaring,  “I would like to see a website deliver baskets of food to people”.

At the time of airing, the 2007/8 season episode was an obvious wink towards the expansion of Amazon. In 2021, it’s no longer a wink; search ‘gift basket’ on Amazon and it will reward you with 10,000+ options while organising a food delivery via a website (and its tech update, the app)? How else would one expect to do it?!… The likes of Michael Scott were fighting a losing war against the march of technology and the personalised face of business relationships was comedy fodder as the world embraced the new ways.

Nevertheless, great art, including comedy, mirrors the times and to watch these episodes of The Office in 2021, one is aware that in the Noughties it was all about ‘now’ – the convenience (and lowest prices) that the efficiency of the internet brought. Yet now, sifting through 10,000 Amazon gift baskets which are pretty similar, all that choice and convenience actually needs quite a bit of quality control management.

Increasingly we crave something more, which is why I predict that having been swamped by technological relationships over the past 18 months or so – from online shopping to non-stop Zooming – we could see a cultural shift take place. There is increasing fatigue with the facelessness of technology and the race to harness its power in business has seen few spaces left for the soft power of ‘small touches’ that work on a personal level.  They may feel like they are dispensable luxuries which could save a bit of time or cash but, actually they count as much today as they did in the early days when the business was starting out with a mission to do things differently…