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November 12, 2023
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Correcting power dynamics in how organisations interact with customers
Published
Nov 12, 2023
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Behaviour change
Brand & creative
Customer experience
Cultural insight
Innovation
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  1. In most cases, when a customer interacts with an organisation, the organisation has the power and control which results in an uneven power dynamic.
  2. Addressing the power inequality that exists between customers and organisations should always be the starting point.
  3. Tapping into human touchpoints and prioritising your customers’ experience will do more than just help them feel listened to – it will shift the dial on their engagement with your organisation and drive increasing perceptions of fairness even in trying times.

The belief that society should be fair and just is inalienably important to Australian people. The Brownlow Medal is awarded to the best and ‘fairest’, and it’s in the title of the national anthem, Advance Australia ‘Fair’. A ‘fair go’ is baked into the Australian mindset.

So, why don’t we hold organisations to the same standard? There are signs that the organisations we interact with as customers are failing to meet the fairness standards that are expected by society. The numbers behind this are revealing: only 63% of Australians think that the last interaction they had with an organisation was fair. For some of the core industries in our lives like banking and electricity, this number drops down to the 40s.  

Driving a disconnect at an interaction level

The gap in fairness is, in part, due to the power disparity that exists between organisations and customers. In most cases, when a customer interacts with an organisation, the organisation has the power and control which results in an uneven power dynamic. As a customer we subconsciously notice these dynamics, and it impacts our perceptions of organisations.  

This power dynamic resonates across industries in a few specific ways:

  • Organisations dictating the rules of interaction (forcing the mode and method of interaction on customers)
  • Organisations not treating everyone the same (experience and price differences across regions)
  • Lack of customer transparency around the terms and options provided by organisations
  • Lack of customer input in the overall outcome of interactions with organisations

Our data shows that organisations in industries with historic power inequalities are perceived by customers to be less fair as a baseline. There’s a clear tension between using power dynamics to drive profitability versus actively addressing them to improve perceptions of fairness and overall brand equity. For example, the banking industry, scored second to lowest of all industries that we researched in terms of fairness.

What can organisations do to bridge this perception gap?

Organisations should not be shying away from the knowledge that they hold the balance of power in interactions with customers. Organisations and industries have a lot to gain from acknowledging and actively addressing these power discrepancies. In the same way that communications and brand platforms can change how customers perceive a brand, CX too can play a role in how customers perceive the fairness of an organisation.  

Addressing this specific dynamic differential successfully will impact your customers’ perceptions of fairness. There are three levels to assess an interaction by:

  1. Ease of completion
  1. Effort  
  1. Reward

Most basic expectation – Ease of completion

Ease of completion is concerned with whether a customer’s need was met by an organisation. Some questions a customer might ask when considering Ease include:

  • Was I able to complete my interaction with the organisation effectively and promptly with respect and equitable treatment?
  • Did I feel valued and treated with dignity in getting what I needed from the organisation?
  • Did I feel taken advantage of?

In order to better embody Ease in CX interactions, organisations should strive for maintaining consistent and acceptable standards of interaction across all touchpoints and customers. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you feel like your organisation is disadvantageous to a customer because of who they are or their previous relationship with you.  

Next level - effort

Effort is concerned with whether organisations are responsive and accountable to a customer’s needs. Some questions a customer might ask when considering Effort include:

  • Did I feel like the organisation met me half-way with reciprocal effort?
  • Did the organisation expect me to make a justified effort to address my concerns that was disproportionate to their contribution?

To better embody Effort in CX interactions, organisations should take responsibility for mistakes they’ve made and empower customer service representatives to take the time and effort to understand and address customer concerns. There should be the perception that your organisation's effort is being used to overcome a customer’s challenge.  

Final level - reward

Reward is best summed up as whether the customer felt like their interaction with your organisation was a win-win. If an organisation can be seen to be actively diminishing its power by taking a customer’s perspective over its own and by providing transparent, honest information then a customer will feel rewarded. Some questions a customer might ask when considering Reward include:

  • Did the interaction feel like it was a mutually beneficial partnership?
  • Did I have a choice in how I interacted with the organisation or what the terms of that interaction were?

In order to better embody reward in CX interactions, organisations should prioritise emotional high-points as lasting triggers of fairness. People feel the most vulnerable during those high points; the potential negative triggers of perceived unfairness and over-empathising could be just as unpleasant for customers as a lack of empathy to begin with.

Customers want to feel heard and listened to, but those CX interactions have to feel genuine. Particularly within industries that have highly emotional outcomes (banking, real estate), it is important for organisations to prioritise empathetic understanding – this will help drive greater engagement with customers in a way that they perceive as fair.  

There’s a benefit to organisations proactively addressing this gap; whether a customer expects a power inequality between an organisation and other individuals has a clear impact on how their interactions with said organisation will play out. Confirmation bias comes into play here; if a customer expects there to be a power inequality, then they will exhibit a level of defensiveness. If they approach an organisation with a more humanistic, forgiving mindset then the interaction is more likely to be positive.  

What we can learn from Bunnings in how to address fairness

In our research, hardware stores came out on top as the most fair industry in Australia. Bunnings, a local brand near and dear to our hearts, has been especially successful in delivering fairness in its interactions with customers.  

To fulfil the Ease component of the diagnostic model, Bunnings makes it clear that as an organisation, it is set up to deliver to the needs of all customer groups. Whether you’re a first-time DIYer or a seasoned tradie, Bunnings provides services and offerings to assist you with your needs.  

To fulfil the Effort component, Bunnings focuses on its digital experience. Inventory and processes are transparently categorised and easy to access so it is clear to customers that the organisation has done the work in order to improve their in-store experience.  

To fulfil the Reward component, Bunnings has identified where the emotional high-point is for its customers – completing that special job. To ensure that their customers get there, the organisation prioritises helping them on that journey: DIY knowledge is democratised and disseminated through staff and relevant organisational materials. The organisation champions no judgement, and the provision of free assistance and guidance. By ensuring that customers reach that emotional high-point with the organisation’s assistance, Bunnings can cement those lasting triggers of fairness in their minds.  

Addressing the power inequality that exists between customers and organisations should always be the starting point. After that, consistency in actions matters; if customers see your organisation making an effort and investing in empathy and empowerment in customer-facing actions, then you’ll be able to affect the perceptions that they previously held. Tapping into human touchpoints and prioritising your customers’ experience will do more than just help them feel listened to – it will shift the dial on their engagement with your organisation and drive increasing perceptions of fairness even in trying times.

*Data in this article is based on a quantitative study over N=1000 nationally representative and the work was carried out in Australia in August 2023 by TRA and sponsored by Dynata consumer panel provider.

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Published
November 12, 2023
Contributed by
Tagged with
Behaviour change
Brand & creative
Customer experience
Cultural insight
Innovation
Summary
  1. In most cases, when a customer interacts with an organisation, the organisation has the power and control which results in an uneven power dynamic.
  2. Addressing the power inequality that exists between customers and organisations should always be the starting point.
  3. Tapping into human touchpoints and prioritising your customers’ experience will do more than just help them feel listened to – it will shift the dial on their engagement with your organisation and drive increasing perceptions of fairness even in trying times.
Daniel van Vorsselen
Account Director
Daniel is an experienced CX researcher and strategist, helping organisations collaborate and engage better to drive customer outcomes. He has extensive experience across Financial Services, Retail, Automotive and Tech across NZ, Canada and Australia.
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