If Your Customers Are Angry, Does It Matter?

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Whole Foods, home of organic food, gluten-free bread, vitamins... and the angry customer? Nils Parker says that Whole Foods seems to attract the angriest customer segment. Of course, I enjoyed the story because (spoiler warning) the jerk got a nice zinger right back at him. But more important is that Parker appears to be doing, probably unintentionally, what every good marketing exec should do: build and understand their customer personality (the cool words nowadays are "persona", before that, it was "archetype").

The article argues that Whole Foods seems to draw a very angry clientele: angry at the world, angry at the next person in line, angry at the cashier, and angry at Whole Foods itself, not to mention society at large. My wife the psychologist would probably say the person is actually angry at him/herself, but I am not going to psychoanalyze these people.

Here are the two questions:

  1. Do Whole Foods executives know that they have this type of customer?
  2. Does it matter?

Personally, I have often been saved by Whole Foods. While something need not be vegan or ___-free to be kosher, those products often are. When traveling to locations with few options for kosher food, Whole Foods has at times been a saviour. And, while I have met polite and friendly people at Whole Foods, especially the staff, I have also seen the angry customers at just about every one I have been to.

Whole Foods has been very successful in understanding both the growing health-conscious desire of the urban American (and Americans in general, to a lesser degree), and especially the social component of that consciousness. Even sitcoms play into it. One does not succeed in this type of growth without fully understanding their customers. While I have not spoken with anyone at Whole Foods directly, I would venture it likely they are very much aware of their customer segment, including whatever frustrations are driving this anger.

The second question is whether or not it matters that your customer is so angry all of the time. On the one hand, tapping into anger can be a very powerful business driver, especially when you can help resolve that anger. Great customer service in an industry not usually served by it (think wireless carriers) can create an emotional desire to move over, and lead to far more conversions than cheaper plans (and at higher margins). While I continue to fly United Airlines regularly, the snafus during the merger of Continental and United led to many top-tier flyers leaving for American Airlines (and receiving matching elite status), largely because they were angry at being mistreated.

On the other hand, if you tap into that anger yet do not help resolve it, some of it eventually comes back to bite you. The angry customer in Parker's story eventually blows up at the manager and at the President of Whole Foods. And, after all, who wants a screaming banshee in your store? It does not create a positive emotional customer experience.

In the short term, it is a great market to tap into. But in the long-term, it is a very risky strategy. Time will tell.