Taming the Vigilante Consumer – What Do They Really Want?

Today’s consumers can sometimes look like a threatening mob. They’re often unhappy, make vague or irrational demands, and can rush in unexpected directions that strongly affect our livelihoods. They may suddenly take their business elsewhere or bombard us with time-consuming, expensive complaints. Even both.

“These people are manipulating the marketplace through pressure, protest, and politics,” says futurist Faith Popcorn who coined the term “vigilante consumers.”

Why have our customers become so volatile and unpredictable? The answer is simple. In the old days, conventional marketing divided prospective consumers into two categories, the classes and the masses. If you’re selling $100,000 cars you appeal to the classes, and if you you’re selling Hyundais, you appeal to the masses.
Then along came retailers like Walmart who combined good buys with good customer service. “Now the masses know class,” says Popcorn. But these vigilante consumers are rarely as dangerous as they sound. Their wants are simple: just value, service, convenience, choice, and lots of attention.

Impossible, you say? Quite the contrary. This is a great time to be alive and in business. Armed with facts, drive, and an open mind, we can begin planning strategies that will bring us challenge, fun–and profit.


In a shuttle bus taking me to the airport after a speaking engagement, I began schmoozing with the driver. (I’m always looking for new material.) Knowing his service was not affiliated with any of the resorts, I asked if the guests he drove told him about their experience at the hotel. “Yes,” he said. “In fact, the general manager of the property where you were staying brings a big box of donuts and has coffee with our drivers once a month. We not only tell him everything we hear about his property, we tell him everything we hear about his competitors.” How many businesses have spent a fortune on management consulting firms to find out what this resourceful general manager gets for a box of donuts and an hour’s conversation every month!

The most frequently overlooked low-tech customer survey method is to talk to someone who talks to your customers and has no vested interest in their opinions. But this doesn’t mean you don’t also interview them formally.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotels, famous for customer service, do regular formal surveys with cards in the rooms and mailings.

I was on the same program with their president, Horst Schulze, who said someone had asked him, “Why don’t you offer a ‘frequent guest’ program?” (Such programs are a major investment of organizational time and philosophical strategy.) “I told them that we don’t because only two percent of our customers have asked for them. What our customers do want is to have a bowl of fresh fruit in the room when they check in.” So that’s what the Ritz-Carlton Hotels provide. When you know what people really want, it is rarely difficult or expensive to make them feel special. Schulze was doing exactly right.

My friend David Garfinkel, a copy writing genius, says there are five important answers you need to get from your customers, directly or indirectly.

  • What do you like about buying from us?
  • Why did you buy from us in the first place?
  • What problems did you have before you bought from us?
  • How did we help you solve those problems?
  • How are things better for you now?

“That last answer,” he says, “is very important. It’s what a positive result looks like to a real customer, and it’s going to look the same to your other customers and prospects when you tell them about it.”


There are really only two types of customers: those who already know and love you and those who never heard of you. All businesses spend money trying to get new customers, but money spent keeping current customers does double duty. Pamper them, keep in touch with them, acknowledge their needs. It’s cheaper and more effective than getting new ones. Remember, an unhappy former customer will talk about you and cost you business. A happy current customer will talk about you and get you new business. People want to do business with people who appreciate them and look out for them.

No one ever lost customers by treating them with appreciation, consideration, and integrity.