How to delight customers - by saying “no” to Big Tech
Feb 15, 2019

You've probably heard that Amazon has abandoned its plans to build its HQ2 in New York City. (If not: NYT.) This was prompted no doubt by pushback from the City Council - here's an excerpt on my radio show - and various community groups.

New Yorkers said "no" to Amazon.

It's good news. Remember that the deal was denounced both on the right (Wall Street Journal, National Review) and the left (Rep. Ocasio-Cortez): there's simply no reason for New York to engage in, as the WSJ put it, "crony capitalism at its worst." Our governor offering to change his name to "Amazon Cuomo" only added to the embarrassment.

Among many other problems, the deal fell through because Amazon didn't include the "customer," that is, the citizens who would be affected. The company has arrived at the stage, perhaps inevitable for a global monopoly, of blind arrogance toward the people it affects. Here is venture capitalist Albert Wenger's take: this was "a failure to 'read the room' of epic proportions." (For more, here's another thread - which I strongly agree with - and a more Amazon-friendly take which, less so.)

The root of the problem is concentration of power - especially in the case of Amazon, a company originally known for its "obssession" for the customer experience. Once Amazon achieved its monopoly, the commitment to customers fell away. (Does anyone really think the HQ2 deal showed concern - let alone "obsession" - for the people affected?)

Concentration of power. It's not just a problem at Amazon. We're also seeing it in Internet access in the US. I recently interviewed Susan Crawford, Harvard Law professor and author of the new book Fiber, which covers this very problem. Telecom and cable companies have cemented their monopoly and duopoly positions across the entire US. Guess what happens when customers say they want faster, more reliable, reasonably priced fiber access. Nothing. (Actually, in some cases, a lot happens - the companies actively discourage citizens from speaking up to change the system.)

Let's take it further. What happens when a Big Tech company, which never was committed to users in the first place, enjoys ever-higher concentration of power? You get Facebook boasting about fraud (that's my 2-minute segment on the topic), telling third-party developers how "friendly fraud" works to deceive children into buying virtual goods on their parents' credit cards. We're talking kids who are 5 years old. And an official Facebook memo, with "fraud" in the title, on how to trick them.

Yes, a public company has admitted to fraud, yet no action has been taken against it. Hello again, concentration of power.

NEXT STEPS

All of this reveals two simple lessons:

• If you're a company planning a launch - an app, a site, a redesign, an HQ2 - include the customer in your thinking. My book Customers Included is a good roadmap.

• If you're a citizen facing down an extractive monopolist, demand to be heard. For example, Toronto residents have been fighting Google as its Sidewalk Labs division tries to surveil the citizens there with its "smart city" - much like, in New York, Google's LinkNYC surveillance towers continue their secret extraction of citizen data. (Here's researcher Wolfie Christl on that.)

The companies with the most concentration of power will not follow my advice. They won't change on their own. That's what antitrust is for.

But for everyone else, include the customer. It doesn't take a lot of time or money, compared to the endless buildouts of extractive, exploitative software we see Big Tech companies engaging in. You can say "no" to Big Tech and delight your customers. Just treat people right. You might even build a company that citizens are happy to welcome to their city.

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• Read more in Customers Included.

• Hear more in Techtonic on WFMU, my weekly podcast.