When I first had the idea for this blog, I though it would be straightforward enough to find out who first stated these now well known words – how wrong was I?
Despite what I first thought, no one seems to know exactly where this quote comes from, and there are numerous on-line debates about it – trust me on that one. Some attribute it to Franklin D Roosevelt (although apparently he never actually said it – it was part of speech he never made), Winston Churchill crops up as a potential author, and it’s been attributed even earlier than that – back to Jesus Christ (“To those who much is given much is required” – Luke 12:48).
Whoever it was, it was popularised by Stan Lee in Marvel Comics.
Who has the power?
Historically, it was businesses who wielded the power. They were the ones providing goods and services to consumers, but customers were not at the forefront of company thinking – it would seem that the responsibility bit was side-stepped.
In modern times, as companies shift their focus onto their customers, they are becoming ever increasingly aware of the responsibility they have both towards their customers and the impact that they have on society as a whole.
I’m guessing that most people would agree that power has shifted to the side of the customer – but how did this happen?
Some might say it is a modern phenomenon – and they are possibly right. It’s not that I disagree, but I believe it has its roots in the humble vending machine – the first of which was seen in the first century (the work of Hero of Alexandria, it dispensed Holy Water). Jumping forward a few centuries – to the 1880s – the first modern vending machines began to be seen in London.Vending machines started to give the customer power, there was no human-to-human interaction – it was the customer who did everything (at least from their perspective).
This is where it all began.
Moving through the 20th Century, more and more innovations gave rise to the power of the consumer.
I can remember a time when if you needed to fill up with petrol, you had to wait for someone to come and do it for you (not me personally, at age 5, I wasn’t allowed to drive – my feet could not reach the pedals!). I remember my parents saying things like “surely it’s too dangerous for us to do”. I even remember my Dad driving around to find a manned petrol station to avoid doing it himself – which kind of defeated the object as you used up more petrol doing so.
Possibly one of the biggest shifts seen for consumers was supermarkets. There was a time when you went to a shop and told the shop keeper what you wanted, and they gave it to you – everything was behind the counter. Sainsbury’s were the first to adopt this way of shopping in the UK, with the story going that when the first self-serving shop was opened in Croyden it was met with outrage and one customer, a judge’s wife, throwing a wire basket at Lord Sainsbury and swearing at him, when she saw she was required to do the job of a shop assistant.
Banking is a good example time line to follow to see these changes, with the introduction of the first ATM by Barclays in Enfield, North London being a key milestone.
We then have to wait until the 1990s to see the next big self-service innovation in banking – Internet Banking, and over the following 20 years we start to see more sophisticated self-service machinery (deposit machines, Express Banking etc), through to the current day with mobile banking.
It’s only now that we are truly starting to see the power really change hands. Consumers are becoming more aware that they hold the strings, and without them a business is nothing.
With advances in technology the speed of the power shift is getting faster and faster. The more a customer has to do, the more they feel in control. The more they do, the less they perceive the company to be doing – and so the power shift continues.
More and more, businesses expect the customer to do ‘stuff’ that they used to do. It’s only now that companies beginning to appreciate that with this shift in responsibility, it puts the power in the hands of the customers – and they put it there.
To end where I started, I guess the Spiderman quote could now be rewritten as:
“With great responsibility there also comes great power”