Why I'm optimistic for 2019: customers are back
Jan 18, 2019

The obit section this week noted that two people I've long admired - John Bogle, founder of Vanguard, and poet Mary Oliver - passed away within a day of each other. The news, though sad, showed symmetry. In very different fields, Bogle and Oliver each advocated the value of simplicity: Bogle offered financial customers a straightforward, non-exploitative investment service; and Oliver wrote hundreds of invitations for us to observe, appreciate, and live in the natural world.

We need more Bogles, and more Olivers, in today's frothy moment. In the landscape I know best, where online tech has had an effect, things have veered recently toward the deceptive, the exploitative, and the contemptuous of customers and citizens. Despite that, I feel optimistic that 2019 will begin to show a turnaround.

First, let's state a fact, unfashionable as it may be to say right now. You build a better business by treating your customers well, not by exploiting or deceiving them.

The twist, as explained by Peter Drucker - whose attitude was not unlike Bogle's - is that this approach works in the long run. There's no short-term pop, no instant infusion of wealth or status, from treating people well. It takes commitment and grit to stick to a strategy of empathizing with customers, and delivering benefits to them (and I mean actual benefits, not addictions, manipulations, or traps).

Much of Silicon Valley takes the opposite approach by exploiting users as a resource, rather than serving customers with a long-term commitment. This has the unfortunate effect of wiping out human-oriented, community-friendly organizations and institutions. (Look at Amazon killing Main-street retail; Facebook killing democracy and community; Google killing entrepreneurship and privacy, among other things; etc.)

This Big Tech approach will fail, 100% guaranteed. I'm not sure when - it could crater this year (signs look possible), or Big Tech might manage to monopolize the markets, capture the regulators, and anesthetize citizens sufficiently to last several more years.

But when the Silicon Valley mindset finally collapses - NOT IF, BUT WHEN - the teams outside Big Tech that have patiently treated customers well, all these years, will thrive all the more.

For those teams in 2019 that are fighting the good fight - trying to help, not exploit, their users - your task is to stay alive. Keep listening to customers, keep delivering good experiences and honest messaging, and stay hopeful that this winter will pass at some point. Indeed, there are green shoots already in the frozen ground (worthy of a Mary Oliver poem, I'd say).

This is why I predict that customer-inclusive strategy is coming back, and it's happening in 2019. Many teams are tired of, or opposed to, the exploitative approach and are looking for alternatives.

A good roadmap is my book Customers Included, which has fun case studies (like the time I helped kill Google Glass) and some New Yorker cartoons. You can buy it via an indie or, if you must, via a monopoly.

Meantime, I'm gearing up for a 2019 filled with work that, I can only hope, would make John Bogle and Mary Oliver proud. Who's with me?