Discussions of marketing tend to gravitate toward the extremes: either the customers are mindless sheep who will do whatever they are told, or they are autonomous individuals who are immune to influence. Stranger still, one often hears elements of both extremes in the very same argument, presentation, or proposal – which is a sign that the presenter hasn’t really thought through his case.
It’s usually the case that binary thinking is oversimplified, based on the fallacy of black-or-white with no consideration that there may be a continuum and that most individuals are situated somewhere between the extremes.
No customer is completely obedient: even a person who seems submissive and manipulable has at least a few areas of his life in which he maintains some degree of control. He is agreeable and gullible to a point, but beyond that point can be pushed no further. Neither is any customer completely autonomous: there are instances where an individual who insists on thinking and choosing for himself will defer to others, either when the decision is regarded as unimportant or he feels that he lacks the expertise to make a decision.
Marketers must carefully consider the degree of obedience/autonomy a customer will exercise in any buying decision: which things he will want to choose for himself, and which he will submit to accepting whatever is recommended. While there is no position that is universal to all customers, there are some that are likely to be appropriate to the greater number of customers who are purchasing a specific product in a specific situation.
Healthcare provides a good example of this flexibility. Most people (though certainly not all) recognize that they lack expertise – they do not know anatomy and medicine, and so will submit themselves entirely to the care of a physician and follow every order they are given. But most people want to choose which physician treats them – it’s one of the major issues that has prevented socialized medicine in autonomous cultures.
Even the submissive customers are not completely submissive: a common complaint among medical practitioners is that customers do not comply with their orders – they refuse to break harmful habits, or to that medications and attend therapy as instructed. While they are agreeable to the suggestion, their autonomy is shown in the lack of compliance in follow-through.
Other industries face the same issues: customers who seem agreeable to a point, but who then fail to obey. The vendor, in their arrogance, expects a customer to be completely compliant and does not know what to do when the customer refuses to comply – except that they wish to avoid being blamed for the customer’s “failure” to mindlessly obey their directives. In such instances, they have clearly mistaken the customers’ tendency to reclaim their autonomy.
On the other hand, even the autonomous customer is not completely autonomous: in general, people don’t invest much time in thinking through their purchases. When an item is expensive, risky, or important, people will invest time and thought into exploring or evaluating options – but when cost, risk, and importance is low, even highly autonomous individuals tend to follow suggestions rather than think for themselves. In such instances, failure to provide guidance is failure to close the deal.
In all, this points to a need for further research – not in general, but in specific to the product, segment, and situation because generalizations do not hold in all instances. To make sales and satisfy customers ultimately depends on coming to a proper conclusion as to the level of obedience and autonomy that can be reasonably expected of the majority of individuals in a given situation. There simply are no easy and universal answers.