You are here

Towards the Working Customer

We're in the last keynote of the Prosumer Revisited conference, by Kerstin Rieder. She begins by giving an overview of existing research on active consumption - on the societal, organisational, and interactive level. There is currently a fundamental change in producer/consumer relationships, towards consumer labour (or towards 'the working customer', the English translation of the title of her book with Günter Voß, Der arbeitende Kunde). Kerstin notes for example that customers do work for McDonald's by collecting their rubbish and separating it into different waste categories; the value of this labour in Germany adds up to several billion Euro per year.

An important online development is customers serving other customers, for example through product and seller reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, or through travel reviews in travel Websites. This is both a quantitative and qualitative change - there is increased customer work taking place here, and the level of this work is also increasing, not least supported by more sophisticated Web 2.0 technologies.

We see the emergence of the working customer, who becomes both a source of labour, a source of value, and a co-worker within the production organisation. This happens to varying extent and in varying contexts, of course, and it ends up pulling both producers and consumers towards the middle ground: more and more workers within conventional production companies are moving (not necesarily voluntarily) towards freelance and self-determined work relationships as well, of course.

One example for this is in journalism, where citizen reporters are increasingly sought out by mainstream media organisations (and attracted by the promise of public recognition and even prizes); in advertising, where customers are now frequently invited to design their own advertising campaigns; or in politics, where campaigns such as those of Barack Obama activate citizens as campaigners (this could be described as the working citizen, in analogy to the working customer), and continue to explore direct citizen involvement in government through the redesign of the White House Website.

Similar trends also exist in health, where there are direct appeals to patients to become more immediately involved in health services (in response to increasing health services costs, an increase in chronic diseases, the perceived need for more participation of patients, and the opportunities offered by e-health systems). Health services costs have increased massively over the past decade, too.

Studies in Switzerland have shown that there is a strong preference amongst patients for deciding about therapy options either alone or in cooperation with their physician - that such decisions should not be left to the physician alone -, but that this desire has yet to be fulfilled in practice. Some of these developments are also driven by demographic change, of course - the rapidly aging population in Germany, for example, with a corresponding increase in chronic diseases.

There is a hope that greater patient involvement might reduce the time spent in hospital, lead to better preparation for and treatment after surgery, and enable the development of walk-in health centres; there are also perceived opportunities to improve disease prevention strategies and promote healthy lifestyles, as well as offers in secondary and tertiary prevention (that is, management of diagnosed chronic diseases).

Further, there is already substantial use of health information online, in a significant number of cases even in preference to the physician. Some such sites, such as Cancerfacts, provide well-researched, evidence-based personalised health advice on the basis of information provided by users; others operate as online self-help health communities where patients help one another.

Overall, then, in many industries the working customer is already well established. There is a growing range of activating this working customer, and we see fundamental changes in the relationship between customers and businesses. Work, then, is entering the private sphere in a new way, and in these new forms there is a closer direct cooperation between working customers and businesses. This is a new way for work to pervade society.

However, are customers qualified for such work? Are there appropriate mechanisms for selecting the right customers to work with? How can such customers be motivated to participate? What rewards can customers expect for such labour? Do occupational health and safety regulations need to be extended to cover such working customers? Is there a need to set up lobby groups to represent the interests of such working customers?

Some opportunities are clear in these development: service quality may improve, costs may be saved, rewards for participation may be available, and new opportunities for creativity and personal development may be available. But there are dangers here as well: the extension of business control over customers (their data can be hijacked, as in the case of Facebook, for example), and new forms of social inequality (as some users may be unable to participate and are thus excluded from new services).

What needs to be researched further are customer needs and wants, the risks of excluding certain consumer groups, and the appropriate approaches to working with customers. Some such work is now underway, and may help to accompany and shape the current trend towards the working customer.

Technorati : , , , , , : , , , , ,