A protestor participating in Occupy Seattle recently was photographed lighting a Bank of America debit card on fire. The photo of the card going up in flames represents the sentiment among consumers right now and the power they hold.
Last Tuesday, when Bank of America announced that it would nix its plans to charge consumers a $5 per month fee for the privilege of using their debit cards, the announcement represented more than a sound business decision. It showed that companies are listening to their customers and that social consumers wield more power than ever before to drive business decisions within companies.
For Bank of America, the reversal came mostly after some 40,000 consumers on the opt-in list of the Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, called for a congressional investigation into the additional banking fees.
Netflix customers over the past couple months also demonstrated their collective power when about a million customers fled the company after Netflix announced that it would raise the price of its monthly subscriptions and split the streaming and mail-order businesses into two different brands.
After a deep consumer backlash, the company announced in October that it would reverse its decision to offer two websites to order DVDs. CEO Reed Hastings admitted on his blog that having two sites "would make things too difficult" for its members.
Both incidents, along with announcements over the past week that JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, SunTrust Bank, and Regions Financial Corp. have also all backed away from plans to charge monthly fees for debit card purchases, represent a dangerous dichotomy between customers and the brands that they have come to trust.
That trust is fragile and eroding in some cases, largely due to consumers who have gained a steady foothold on an ever-evolving social platform on which to air complaints and vie for change. As a result, gone are the days when behemoth companies can make high-stake decisions at the expense of their customers without first consulting them and gathering voice of the customer feedback.
Today's consumers are empowered and are not afraid to use their social muscles. The power of tomorrow's customers remains to be seen.