Corporate Castles: A Chinese Perspective

Last week I posted a few thoughts on corporate castles, and was both impressed and intrigued by a comment it received. I’d like to share this comment with you for three reasons. Firstly, because it was so eloquently written; secondly, because it was written by a friend and fellow morphological researcher Sami Wong; and thirdly, because it provides a different cultural perspective on the idea of corporate castles.

“Ancient Chinese emperors, such as Kang Xi (康熙), Yong Zheng (雍正) and Qian Long (乾隆), would have their regular undercover visits to the public and try to understand what was really happening outside of the ‘forbidden city’. The goal was to ensure that they are not out of touch with their citizens and to explore people’s actual needs. Instead of relating to the public with a view of ‘I-It’ relationship (treating them like an object), these emperors chose a highly personal approach by using ‘I-Thou’ interaction which involves intimacy and understanding of each other. As a result, they are the most respected emperors in Chinese history and their ruling had been longer than any other dynasties.”

“Isn’t that amazing that most of these corporations are taking the I-It relationship in their public dimension? They are relating to their customers like an object; keeping it as impersonal as possible, just like a daily transaction with grocery clerks and bank tellers. And yet, they request customers to remain loyal towards their brand and with minimal complaints. What they can’t see is that as human beings, we all long for the I-Thou relationship which involves a level of intensity, intimacy and respect. When our needs are not met, we rebel or we leave.”

One of the things I find most interesting about this comment was the idea that Western corporations may be adversely affecting customer relationships because they view them as ‘ownable objects’ instead of more ‘holistic interactions.’ Could it be that our Western drive to objectify people is impeding our ability to really understand and satisfy them? We call them customers instead of human beings. We target them instead of building relationships. We create campaigns instead of interactions.

Over the coming years, it will be fascinating to see if the economic rise of China will also give rise to new concepts of customer interaction (like the idea of an ‘I-Thou’ interaction) - or whether traditional Western approaches to marketing will remain the status-quo.

Corporate Castles and the Customer Renaissance

A few months ago while waiting at the airport, I overheard two businessmen publicly discussing a PR disaster. From what I could ascertain, a woman had eaten at their restaurant chain and had contracted a case of food poisoning. Unfortunately for the restaurant chain this woman was a prominent radio host and blogger, and had begun to lampoon their restaurants in public.

“I’ll get in touch with the station holding company” said the first businessman, “our company buys a lot of advertising from them; if they don’t shut her up I’ll threaten to pull our spend.” To which the second businessman responded, “If that doesn’t work just unleash the lawyers. They’ll hit her with so many lawsuits she’ll be drowning in paperwork.”

It occurred to me while listening to this conversation that many companies operate like corporate castles; hiding behind corporate walls and choosing to attack their customers.

The Corporate Castle

Castles are large fortified structures that were built predominately during the Dark Ages. At the time they served a vital role in providing lords and nobility with protection, control over their territory, and the ability to maintain power over a population.

Today many companies also seem to operate within large fortified structures. These corporate castles have been designed to control markets and protect resources from public view. Their defensive walls are vast, from the firewalls on their company server to the legal barriers that surround their operations.

The Customer Challenge

Corporate castles have gained quite a foothold in our culture. Despite the fact that castles are claustrophobic, expensive to maintain, inflexible, and limit one’s ability to take offensive action – many corporations seem addicted to their defensive walls.

When corporate castles are faced with customer challenges and social media conversations, they act defensively instead of collaboratively. For example, instead of seeing a customer complaint as an opportunity to engage and improve, they see it as an attack.

Pulling up the drawbridge (shutting off dialogue), firing flaming arrows (launching legal attacks) – these may be great techniques when facing an army, but they’re awful techniques when you’re killing your customers.

Abandoning the Corporate Castle

According to the historian
Dr. Michael Thomson, “castles freely expired of their own accord in the 15th century. Comfort is said to have been the main motive for abandoning castles.” Put simply, lords and nobles came to realize that living in a castle kind of sucked.

This is a historical lesson that modern leaders may wish to reflect upon. Instead of living in isolation from their customers, perhaps it’s time for corporations to abandon their castles in favor of comfort, and replace their legal defenses with social dialogue.

So what do you think? Are the corporate Dark Ages coming to an end? Is it time for companies to abandon their corporate castles? I’d love to hear your thoughts.