The Customer is Always Right

The concept of the ‘customer’ has changed greatly over recent years.

In the early 20th century when Harry Selfridge first coined the phrase, “The Customer is always right”, the transition from bespoke to mass markets was in its adolescence. Kodak had just captured its first moment and the Model T was freshly hatched from the production line. The customer was very much an individual to be served.


Today, the customer is a collective noun, a plural denoting the herd. The customer has become a data point. An abstraction to be tracked, analysed and interpolated.

The big data approach to customer engagement

“The ultimate search engine would understand everything in the world. It would understand everything you asked it and give you back the exact right thing – instantly.” – Larry Page (2006)

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the field of Big Data. What started in 2004 as “The Wisdom of Crowds” has morphed into the latest must-have corporate accoutrement. Companies everywhere hungrily eye their databases, curious as to what treasures they may hold. Social media promises to intuit customer’s desires even before they have them. Under this model, interactions with the customer are via algorithm, where we solve for colour, sex and creed by the pages we visit and the friends we like.

An advertiser’s dystopia

“The most stupid ideas can now in a moment be transferred into a thousand volumes and spread abroad” – Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494)

The idea that a business can divine customers’ needs and wants by tracking their digital exhaust is an attractive proposition. It promises that:

  • Business can predict and influence what customers want;
  • Business can tap directly into customer demand; and, even better,
  • Businesses can do all this without even ‘talking’ with them.

This is the dream that the peddlers of tracking algorithms are selling. They want companies to believe that advertising on their networks will enable them to mine rich veins of customer demand – that they ‘know your client’ perhaps even better than they know themselves.

The Customer Unbound

But it would be a mistake to view this cubic-splining of the customer as an Orwellian inevitability. Feedback from customers globally has been pretty clear that we don’t like being tracked. That there hasn’t been an uprising is more reflective of the lack of choice not that we don’t care.

Sure, we are creatures of the flock. We can be influenced by our friends, brands, a crowded restaurant window. But ultimately only I can know my needs and wants. It is my choice.

The key concept that the algo-advertisers have missed then is that there is only one source of truth for my individual needs, and that is me. The reason that the customer is always right is that only I can truly know what I want.

Wouldn’t it be far simpler to just ask the customer what they want? We think that the answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

We believe we are on the cusp of a renaissance of the customer as an individual. The companies and organisations that rise to the top of their fields will be those that personalise their offers, tailor their products and services – all their interactions – for the benefit of the unique customer.