Workers Are Flexing Their Muscles. Now Customers Should, Too.

How do you get more companies to focus on customer experience? Get more customers to vote with their feet.


Angry with employers over everything from low wages to poor quality of life, workers are saying enough is enough.  They’re quitting in record numbers, resisting inflexible work arrangements, and even going on strikes.  Faced with a shifting balance of power, companies are taking action to address worker frustration – raising pay, embracing remote/hybrid work, and making other improvements.

But workers aren’t the only group that’s frustrated.  The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), a widely-cited measure of consumer sentiment towards businesses, is at a 15-year low.  While Covid-19 has played a part in this, it’s not singularly responsible.  The ACSI was declining years before the pandemic hit.

Businesses these days are subjecting consumers to a whole array of indignities:  interminable telephone service hold times, understaffed stores, hidden fees, a la carte pricing schemes, and confusing communications.  Even complaining has become more difficult, as it now takes an average of three contacts for people to resolve a problem with a business.

It’s all taken quite a toll on consumer perceptions.  Recent research conducted by Watermark revealed that only about a quarter of consumers find that businesses consistently meet their expectations – and nearly half report getting routinely frustrated when working with companies.

Yet there’s a surprising reason why these satisfaction-sapping indignities persist:  Many customers tolerate them.  While they dislike businesses that treat them poorly and make their lives difficult, they succumb to consumer inertia – continuing to buy a particular company’s products or services even when superior options may exist.

We are lazy creatures at heart, adhering to what American psychologist Clark Hull famously termed the “law of less work.”  With an intrinsic aversion to effort, we prefer the path of least resistance, the one that saves us from physical or mental exertion.  So we stay put – with the bank, the insurer, the wireless carrier, the internet service provider, or the software retailer that we loathe.  We convince ourselves that all the other competitors are just as bad.  That the devil we know is better than the one we don’t.

Sadly, this inertia is exactly what some companies count on, because instead of seeking to maximize customer loyalty, they focus on minimizing customer defections.  And when defection-avoidance is your goal, customer inertia is your friend.  A good customer experience is no longer necessary; you just need one that isn’t so awful that it eclipses the inertia and motivates a switch to a competitor.


“Instead of seeking to maximize customer loyalty, [some companies] focus on minimizing customer defections.  And when defection-avoidance is your goal, customer inertia is your friend.”


Absent mass defections, a business that people loathe has no financial incentive to be more customer friendly.  Companies, after all, suffer from their own type of inertia – born not from laziness, but a desire to grow profits and keep investors happy.  When customer, employee, or shareholder interests change, and adverse financial consequences loom, that’s when companies miraculously overcome their inertia and pivot to meet a new, emerging stakeholder need.

Mainstream retailers’ interest in organic foods, for example, really only blossomed when a critical mass of customers not only clamored for healthier, chemical-free products, but were also willing to pay more for them and steer their patronage accordingly.

Similarly, it was consumer and investor interest in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) practices that spurred change in organizations that had long resisted it (legacy auto manufacturers embracing electric vehicles, and oil companies pursuing emissions reductions).

More recently, widespread worker discontent has fueled the Great Resignation, leading companies to raise pay, embrace remote/hybrid work, and introduce new employee benefits and perks.  These concessions to workers aren’t an act of altruism, but pragmatism.  In the current hyper-competitive employment market, organizations feel compelled to address workforce frustrations in order to attract and retain the staff they need to survive.

Consumers would be wise to take a page from that worker playbook, recognizing the collective leverage they have to motivate change at companies large and small.

We grouse about businesses that treat us poorly, but in a very real sense, lousy service is our fault.  We enable the current state by implicitly rewarding companies’ bad behavior with our continued patronage.  Sometimes, we have no choice.  Only a single cable TV provider might serve our neighborhood.  Or our employer might not offer a choice of health insurers.

But those are exceptions (arguably addressed over the long-term by disruptive new entrants that shake up stodgy markets).  In most scenarios, we as consumers have the power of choice.  We just need to exercise it regularly, overcoming our own inertia when we’re dissatisfied with a company’s products or services.

There’s a personal cost to that, as each of us must invest effort in searching for substitute providers and trying out their offerings.  That cost, however, is outweighed by a significantly greater good – getting companies to take customer experience improvement seriously.  Because when consumers vote with their feet, they’re speaking a language every business understands.

[A version of this article originally appeared on]


Jon Picoult is founder of Watermark Consulting, a customer experience advisory firm that helps companies impress customers and inspire employees, creating raving fans that drive business growth.  Author of “FROM IMPRESSED TO OBSESSED: 12 Principles for Turning Customers and Employees into Lifelong Fans,” Picoult is an acclaimed speaker, and advisor to some of world’s foremost brands.  Follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram, or subscribe to his monthly eNewsletter.


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