/ Shopping, Technology

All customers are created equal… or are they?

Imagine you’re at the supermarket and queuing behind you is rock-legend Bono. I’m not sure why a multi-millionaire would be queuing at the supermarket – but how would you feel if staff treated him better than you?

And I don’t just mean giggling and asking for an autograph. How would you feel if they slipped a few free products into his basket or – even worse – served him before you?

I for one would be annoyed. If I’ve been a loyal customer for years, why should Bono swan in and get showered with great customer service and free gifts?

Irritating though it sounds, some businesses do treat certain customers better than others, and ‘online influence’ is one of the key tools used to determine who gets the star treatment and who gets stuffed.

What is online influence?

There are certain websites – such as PeerIndex and Klout – which try to measure how ‘influential’ a person is online by looking at their network of contacts. With my relatively puny 300-odd Twitter followers, my ‘klout’ is fairly low. But if I send a tweet from the mother-ship, @WhichAction (with over 3000 followers), people are more likely to sit up and pay attention.

Many companies are now using those measures of influence to decide who they should ‘target’ with special treatment, some of which I think is completely unfair.

The best things in life are free

Some companies offer free samples. This is pretty common, as celebrities and those with influence will always be targeted by marketers who want to get their brand into the public eye.

For example, one man (not famous but quite popular on Twitter) was the beneficiary of this targeting recently, when he cheekily tweeted at a a restaurant asking if they could have a steak dinner waiting for him at the airport on his way home. His online influence was so strong that the company decided it would be a good marketing move, so they sent someone out with steak and potatoes to meet him as he left the airport.

But everyone deserves a good service

Free products are one thing, but there’s been a worrying trend in the field of social media where companies give people better customer service to those who have greater online influence. And I can see why they’d want to.

After all, Stephen Fry (whose tweets are seen by over four million people) having a pop at your company will have a much greater impact than Joe Bloggs’ occasional rants. But it’s just not right. A person’s online influence should have no bearing on the treatment they receive.

But as more people start using social media to contact companies, the temptation will be greater for those companies to prioritise responses based on who has asked the question.

So I hope that those in charge of corporate social media understand that all customers are created equal. Apart from the obvious immorality of pushing non-internet-savvy customers down the queue, it’s just not a good way to do business.

Have you ever witnessed examples of better service based on a customer’s influence? Or do you think it’s fair game for companies to prioritise their most influential customers?


I agree that all customers are entitled to good service, but I disagree that all customers should be treated equally. French supermarkets for example often have special checkouts for some preferred customers, where service is faster. As well as supermarkets, look at airlines which have various levels of “elite” status – often bronze, silver, gold etc, depending on a customer’s flying habits. The airlines’ most valued customers have gold status, which entitles them to various perks such as free lounge access and better seats. It is makes good commercial sense for businesses to treat their most valued customers better than others, whether they be supermarkets or airlines.


Good point, nfh – I don’t want to criticise companies who offer loyalty points and programmes. The key with these programmes is that they reward loyal customers and – most importantly – anyone can join in. All you have to do is buy that particular brand’s products or services for long enough.

In the situations that inspired the above Convo, what frustrates me is that those who are offered faster service or better treatment are getting it not because they’re valued customers (they may never have bought anything from this company before) but simply because they have a lot of influence with certain people online. This means that the valued customers – those who have shopped there lots before, have all the loyalty points, etc – could be overlooked just because the company’s hoping for some good publicity. And I don’t think that’s fair.

By all means treat these ‘online celebrities’ well, but not at the expense of other customers.

Azeem Azhar says:
28 May 2012

Hi Nikki

We’re (still) in the early days of thinking about the implications of using data like this are; and companies are clearly thinking about how or whether they should apply it.

It’s worth understanding that there is nuance to indicators of influence, authenticity, passion, and loyalty for a brand; and within those indicators there are good reasons why companies might want to segment.

For example, an influencer in a product category might be an influencer because they actively discuss the product, how to get the best from it, how to proactively solve problems.

If that person has a problem, solving it for them first might help other customers quickly. Why? Because that person will take steps to spread the fix or solution to their networks of friends – in this way the company has managed to enlist a passionate fan to help solve the problem for themselves and a wider network of people.

The result – the problem gets resolved quicker for more people. The knowledge gets out their quicker. And everyone gains.

It’s one example – and yes it requires thinking through – but many of these examples drive a positive experience.


Hi Azeem – thanks for joining in! You do make some good points, and I think the idea of solving problems of influencers so that they can help others is an interesting one. The key problem with that, though, is that you’re taking solutions away from typical customer service channels and relying on those who aren’t your company representatives to solve the problems for you. It’s a bit of a gamble.

What if they *don’t* choose to spread the solution? What if they’re busy? What if they only want to help people who they feel could do them a favour in return? An influencer who doesn’t work for your company can never be as reliable or as accountable as one of your own representatives, so in those instances not nearly enough people get helped.

Also, that kind of solution relies on a large number of customers of X company also following this key influencer – those who aren’t following them are left out, and may have to wait much longer to have their problems solved. The easiest place to go if you have a problem with a company should be straight to the company itself – via the company’s own customer service channels.

Of course it’s important to also help key influencers if they’re your customers too, but I don’t think that they should be given priority.


Bono sounds like a dog biscuit, and I have more respect for dog biscuits than celebrities. 🙂

There is nothing wrong with respect but hero worship is uncontrolled, like a cancer.

Excuse me Mr celebrity, but I was at this checkout before you.

Em says:
28 May 2012

The solution to this trend is to shop where the celebs shop!

A few years ago I was in London on business and stopped at Fortnum’s to buy my son a special birthday cake. As I was standing at the bakery counter being served, I became aware of someone arriving behind me and I felt, even by city standards, slightly uncomfortable at having “my” space invaded unnecessarily, as the shop was not at all busy.

The assistant ignored this other person and continued to describe the various cakes available at some length. She then courteously wrapped my selection and accepted payment by credit card. As I gathered my bags and started to move away, I realised who it was that was queueing for a loaf of bread – Stephen Fry.


And I bet he didn’t recognise you.


I think for some people it is a sign that they’ve ‘made it’ when they’re treated like this. As with much celeb culture, Alan Partridge captures the banality of such exclusivity when he boasted that Tandys in Norwich would open solely for him.

Of course, for the full-blown celeb treatment you can’t beat getting Disneyland to yourself, as with Princess Di and sons.