Every day in more and more strategic planning meetings, I listen to executives talk about the importance of mass customization. As they explain it to me, every project, interaction and service will be more and more customized to meet the needs of each specific customer. Furthermore, each product or service will always feel like it has been designed to meet that individual customer’s needs in that exact moment.
While I like the idea of this concept and the potential it could achieve, I am more than a bit cautious of the reality. I comprehend the strategic value of mass customization, but when I reflect on all of my years of working with people I believe it is very difficult to achieve this concept in reality.
From my experience with companies as both a customer and a consultant, the more something is to be done for everyone, e.g. mass customization, the more it becomes commoditized and slightly shallow or sloppy. For example, I was recently working with an organization as a customer and I know they believed in the concept of mass customization. Thus, I was a bit surprised when a customer service representative gave me a call to ask how my last service experience was with their company. In an overly friendly voice and with an assumption of knowing me, the person began to ask a series of scripted service questions. After the initial greeting and questions, I paused and asked them why they were calling me. They listed my last point of contact and again asked how I found their service. I replied that I was the consultant in the room and not the one who had scheduled the event. While I do have events scheduled with them, I was not the lead contact for this event. Deeply embarrassed, the young man apologized and hung up. Mass customization means that everyone gets the same special treatment but in the end it is not that special at all but more of an assumed specialness.
My fear is that the strategic value was lost in the interaction. And that if this happened to me, it was more likely happening to many others. Thus, I have come to the conclusion when listening to both sides of the equation that mass customization means no customization because it will always lack authentic customization based on a long term working relationship. People in leadership positions often forget that followers bond with leaders before strategic plans and visions. Likewise, I believe that customers bond with customer service representatives as much as they bond with companies or brands. Real relationships take real time to develop. There are no short cuts to success.