Dark side of customer obsession

Most of my career has been based on a simple idea: If we became more customer-centric instead of organization-centric, then things would be better for everyone. I still believe in the basic concept but have slowly and painfully come to realize that when customer centricity becomes customer obsession, a highly stressful workplace is likely to evolve.

Away creates “thoughtful luggage for modern travel”, whatever that means. Away makes OK luggage and charges very high prices for it. They obviously pump lots of money into marketing, particularly influencer marketing. I saw a presentation about them a couple of years ago and immediately thought that this was fake and shallow stuff. You’re paying twice the price for the “brand”.

Away claims to be customer obsessed. Maybe. What is clear from a report in The Verge is that Away has a toxic, bullying culture driven by their CEO, Steph Korey. Steph is passionate and super hard-working herself. She believes that customer support staff, in particular, must work relentlessly hard to keep customers happy at all costs.

When Steph decides that her staff must work extra hours and not take time off or vacations, she introduces it by saying that she knows they “are hungry for career development opportunities.” She finishes off her list of unfair and unjust demands by stating: “I hope everyone in this group appreciates the thoughtfulness I’ve put into creating this career development opportunity.”

Relentlessly pushing, bullying, intimidating and firing employees seems to be the norm in customer-obsessed companies. Amazon is the poster child of this depraved behavior. A recent report has shown that Amazon is injuring its workers in the US at a rate twice the national average. Another recent investigation found that Amazon had been dodging workplace safety regulators for years.

Steph Korey describes her style as “modern leadership” and she has lots of supporters out there. Henry Innis is a self-described founder and claimed he didn’t see anything wrong with Korey’s behavior and that “Startups are hard,” even though Away was founded in 2015. CEO John Zettler is really impressed by Korey’s behavior and her “hustle”. Peter Pham, another founder, didn’t see any problem with her approach. Sending bullying messages at three in the morning, that’s just what it takes.

Life should not be constant obsession. That’s just far too stressful. Working warehouse workers and customer support staff to the bone, while paying them the most minimum wage possible, is not “modern leadership.” It’s medieval barbarity. We are being taught as customers that we can have anything we want whenever we want it, and at a great price. The cost of our convenience is increasingly being borne by millions of low-paid, stressed-out workers, whose every move is often monitored by AI systems. And for what? So that Jeff Bezos can build a bigger rocket to Mars? Or some founder dude can buy a bigger yacht?

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