During the tech boom of the late 1990s the early wave of web developers had a business model that required locking customers into a relationship.
Having spent thousands of dollars for designing and building a website, a business then found they would have to spend hundreds of dollars every time they wanted to make even a minor change.
While that model didn’t work out for web designers as new tools appeared that made it easy for customers to look after their own sites, it’s still the ambition of many businesses to ‘own’ as much of the customer as possible.
Department store credit cards, supermarket petrol cards and airline frequent flier programs are all examples of how big businesses try to lock their customers into their ecosystem.
Possibly the dumbest, and most counterproductive all, are the media companies with policies of not linking outside their own websites. The idea is to keep readers on their sites but in reality it damages their own credibility and betrays their lack of understanding how the web works.
The airlines too have discovered the risks in trying to ‘own’ their customers as their devaluing frequent flier programs has irritated and disillusioned their most loyal clients.
Many businesses, particularly banks and telcos, try to tie you up into knots of contractual obligations with reams of terms and conditions. All of this is an attempt to make the customer a slave to their business.
Outside of having a legally protected monopoly, you can’t ‘own’ a customer – the customer has to grant the favour of doing business with them.
They’ll only do business with you if they trust that you’ll do the right thing by your promises; whether it’s delivering the cheapest product, the best service or quickest delivery. The moment their trust begins to slip, you risk losing their business.
Executives who talk of the concept of owning the customer are either working in organisations with little competition or those steeped in 1980s management practices. If you hear them talking like that, it might be best to take your business, and investments, elsewhere.
Owning customers didn’t work for the web designers of the early 2000s and it won’t work for businesses in other sectors. The only way to ensure most of your clients keep coming back is to deliver on what you’ve promised them.