I originally wrote today’s post for Forbes. It appeared on Forbes on March 5, 2019.

“Customers are connected.” “Customers are more-informed than ever.” “Customers trust each other more than brands.” “Customers have the power.” “Customers are in control.”

I’m sure that you’ve seen a headline somewhere across the Internet recently with those words or some variation of those words. It’s the last sentence (maybe the last two) that really baffles me. There’s been a lot of talk lately about customers having the power and being in control. In a world where brands are trying to develop relationships with their customers, what does that really mean? Do customers want to be in relationships with brands? Do they want to be in control? Should brands be in control?

First things first: a refresher. What is customer experience? It is the sum of all the interactions that a customer has with an organization over the life of the relationship with that company… and, importantly, the feelings, emotions, and perceptions the customer has about those interactions.

Yes. I used the word “relationship.” Some people question if that’s the right word to use. Well, according to Oxford Living Dictionaries, a relationship is: “The way in which two or more people or things are connected, or the state of being connected. The way in which two or more people or groups regard and behave toward each other.”

I think everyone can just relax. It’s not that kind of relationship! It’s a connection. It’s how we connect. It’s feelings about – and behaviors toward – each other. It’s a two-way street. I think we’re safe using this word in this context, although I do question if brands really care about their customers.

The one thing we should just keep in mind is that relationships are not managed, as some software platforms might have you believe, nor are they controlled; instead, they are developed and nurtured. Relationships are about each party contributing, not controlling. Imagine if your spouse or significant other controlled or managed your relationship, or vice versa. How would that play out? How would that feel? How long would that last?

How does the meme saying go? “Who wears the pants in the relationship? It’s more fun when no one where pants.”

So, when you see those headlines about customer control and customer power, what are they really talking about? I don’t believe customers want to be “in control.” Honestly, it’s less about control and power and more about expectations and having their expectations known – and met. It’s more about brands doing the right thing and doing what’s right. It’s about customers knocking brands over the head and saying, “We’re tired of being treated like crap! Why is this so hard? You ask us for feedback. You capture all this data about us. And yet, you still deliver an experience that is primitive, at best.”

Think about this for a moment. Great customer experiences have many attributes, e.g., personalized, emotional, memorable, relevant, consistent, etc. But three attributes that rise to the top and get their share of press time on an ongoing basis are: effortless, convenient, and simple. Customers are smarter and more-informed than ever before. And, yes, that raises their expectations. But all they want is for things to be easy. So tell me this: if customers are in control, how is that effortless, convenient, or simple?

Remember, this relationship thing is a two-way street: Brands ask customers for feedback. Customers provide feedback, both solicited and unsolicited. Brands track and capture the bread crumbs of data that customers leave as they interact with the brand. Brands must use that data, combined with the feedback customers provide, to understand customers and their expectations and then to design and deliver a better experience. Customers continue to do business with them. Customers want brands to say, “We heard you, and here’s what we’ve done.” Brands want customers to continue doing business with them.

So, are brands in control? Should they be? Do they really care about their customers? Or is it all a growth play? Is it all about focusing on acquisition and growth and not so much (or at all) on retention?

I think that’s part of the problem. I think that’s why this notion of “control” came about. Customers just got pissed off. The relationship became one-sided. Brands focused on bringing customers into the fold but then didn’t take care of them and nurture the relationship afterward. Companies stopped paying attention. And customers got tired of it.

Why is that so hard? After all, we’re all human. I know I’ve used the terms “brands” and “companies” here, but the bottom line is that “brands” and “companies” are run by people. People make the decisions to do business the way that they do. Why do they treat their customers so poorly? What happens every morning when they cross the threshold of their employers’ offices? Does the humanity and the empathy get sucked right out of them as soon as they walk through the doors? Why can’t we just put the human into all we do. Be more human. Be more humane. Why do we design processes and experiences that are so painful? We are all customers. We make our own lives – and the lives of others – more difficult. Why don’t we do what’s right?

As you can tell, I have a lot more questions around that thought than I have answers at the moment. But I do think it’s a fair line of questioning.

Ultimately, I think a better word for what customers want is a participative role in the relationship. That’s not about control; it’s about not being one-sided. Customers have needs and have jobs to be done; companies’ products and services help them fulfill those needs or achieve those jobs. Companies are in business to create and to nurture customers. They need each other. So let’s shift from control to co-creating.

One closing thought. There is one way that customers have control: They have a choice. They can walk away. Treat them poorly, and the relationship is over.

The conversation is the relationship. If the conversation stops, so does the relationship. -Susan Scott

Annette Franz is an internationally recognized customer experience thought leader, coach, speaker, and author. She recently published her first book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the “Customer” in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business); it’s available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. Sign up for our newsletter for updates, insights, and other great content that you can use to up your CX game.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.