Ethics Center: Business Ethics

Beware “the Selfie”: Why Ethical Companies Focus on Customers, Not Themselves

When President Obama participated in a “selfie” at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, he was roundly criticized. But he was only doing something millions of people do every day: posting photos of themselves on the Internet. In fact, according to CNN, there are 57 million photos on Instagram bearing the hashtag “#selfie.”

No wonder the Oxford Dictionary named “selfie” its 2013 International Word of the Year. The fabled dictionary says citations of the word have grown steadily since it first appeared in Australia in 2002, increasing 17,000 percent in the last year alone.

As “selfies" have gone mainstream, so have negative comments about them. People have become too self-absorbed for their own good, the refrain goes. They post photos to tell the world that they exist, that they’re important, and that they deserve (or “demand”) attention.

At the National Ethics Association, we’re not worried about selfies. What we do worry about are companies that take a “selfie” approach to business management. In other words, they ignore ethical business practices in order to enrich themselves at their customers’ expense. This is a bad idea because customers will always resent when companies fail to focus on their needs.  

When companies become self-focused rather than customer-focused, bad things can happen:

  • Salespeople manipulate prospects into buying high-margin products that they might not need. Suitability problems and customer complaints result.

  • Companies skimp on providing post-sale service. Customer complaints and defections grow.

  • Company executives shortcut product or service quality in order to maximize profits. Again, complaints and defections increase.

  • Human resources departments hire lower-quality candidates in order to save money. Employees make more mistakes, increasing customer dissatisfaction.

  • Service team leaders require service reps to complete too many calls per hour, resulting in sloppy work and unhappy customers.

  • Companies provide bare minimum in terms of salaries and benefits, forcing low-wage employees to depend on government support.

  • Companies shirk compliance efforts, resulting in noncompliant practices, safety problems, and undesired government scrutiny.

We could go on, but we think you get the point. Companies that focus more on their own needs—that point the camera at themselves rather than at their customers—will create problems in the short run that may well undermine their long-run viability. Managing your company “by selfie” will ultimately demoralize your staff, disgust your customers, and make it harder to succeed in the marketplace. The alternative? Adhere to ethical business practices that put the customer’s needs first. Here are several guidelines you should consider implementing:

  • Focus your sales and marketing efforts on engaging with your prospect’s problems, not hyping your product features and benefits.

  • Consider using a “content marketing” approach to educate customers about optimal use of your products and services.

  • Follow a recognized quality-management discipline in order to minimize defects in products and services.
  • Develop a staffing plan to assure you provide customer support after the sale.
  • Make it your business to know the state and federal regulations that affect your business. Then comply with them.

At the end of the day, taking and posting selfies is great fun (although funerals may not be the best place to take them!). But customers of “self-obsessed” companies won’t have much fun at all. While those firms tout their greatness, their customers will be fleeing for the exits.

For more information on business ethics, please visit our Ethics Center at Ethics.net.