The Unplugged Customer


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At the end of this month, my television is going dark. I’m canceling my satellite TV contract, having fulfilled my one-year obligation.

I phoned my provider’s service department, to make sure I was living up to my end of the bargain. I can’t tell you how stunned the two people I spoke to were upon hearing that I wasn’t simply switching to cable.

I was falling off the grid entirely.

I was (gasp) UNPLUGGING!

This has been one of the easiest decisions of my life, but it’s the second time I made it. The first time I shunned TV, I was attending college, full-time, while working full-time.

Then, my TV-freedom became its own little conceit, like boycotting certain parts of the food pyramid, or driving the speed limit for an entire tank of gas, to test the EPA’s mileage estimates.

What’s driving me away, now, besides the fact that with hundreds of channels there isn’t much that’s decent to watch?

I don’t like the idea of subscription-TV, whether it comes through a wire or from orbit. Once you pay your hundred bucks or so for the month, you feel obligated to binge on the mediocre buffet.

The subscription is the basic model upon which many fortunes have been made, so I understand the economic incentive that informs newspapers, cable and satellite TV, book and wine clubs, software, DSL, insurance, phone services, leasing and financing, prepaid legal plans, fitness clubs, and too many other businesses to name, here.

A company built on a subscription model has it made if it can sustain its customer base.

People will continue to pay for something, long after their satisfaction ebbs, if they’re locked into a subscription. Even if they’re free to cancel, inertia and laziness will induce some to hang-in long after the thrill is gone.

For instance, I can’t tell you who sold me my business insurance policy, but now, some ten years and many automatic renewals later, I’m still paying for it.

Except during recessions, it’s somewhat surprising how today’s consumers embrace the burdens of subscribing. There was a time, a few decades ago, when they were wary of them.

When I sold Time-Life Books during college, at least twenty percent of people who objected said they didn’t want to subscribe to anything or join a book club. Of course, that was before automatic checking withdrawals made ongoing commitments more palatable.

Frequency marketing has transformed potentially all companies into subscription enterprises. It’s not just your airline, hotel, and car rental firms that have reward plans in place. The smallest car wash and most modest, independent restaurant I know have their own programs going.

All of this effort is aimed at systematically relieving us of our money and of the burden of deciding where to eat, shop, travel, dress, work out, and get our pets groomed. We can live life on autopilot, following the course that has been set for us by countless, clever marketers.

Customer loyalty used to be the residue of performance, of achievement, of transactional satisfaction. Now, repeat business is designed to result from rewards programs and contractual constraints. Want that new, smaller wireless device? Choose our 24-month service plan and it’s free!

Subscription income is predictable income, and businesses and shareholders like that.

But, to paraphrase Dostoevsky, we can think we’re giving a customer everything, putting him in clover, and somehow he’ll still find a way to spite us.

Customers confound our favorite models by exercising the freedom to be unpredictable, and the right to unplug, if only for the heck of it.

As consumer debt increases, and people begin to appreciate that they’re paying for every perk they receive, look for them to cancel subscriptions, un-bundle multi-product offers, foil up-selling attempts, eschew service agreements, and otherwise spoil the well laid plans of frequency marketers and just about everybody else, who currently seems like a customer relationship genius.

Dr. Gary S. Goodman is a popular keynote speaker, management consultant, and seminar leader and the best-selling author of 12 books, including Monitoring, Measuring & Managing Customer Service. Gary’s programs are offered by UCLA Extension and by numerous universities, trade associations, and other organizations in the United States and abroad. When he isn’t consulting, Gary can usually be found in Glendale, California, where he makes his home. He can be reached by calling (818) 243-7338 or at .


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