Wharton’s Cait Lamberton talks about her new book, Marketplace Dignity, which explains why customers want firms to treat them with respect and dignity above anything else. This episode is part of the “Meet the Authors” series.


How Can Companies Treat Their Customers With Dignity?

Dan Loney: Brands are in a unique time right now where they’re being called on by their consumers, and in many cases the public at large, to make a positive impact on society. But according to a new book co-authored by Wharton marketing professor Cait Lamberton, companies may not truly understand how to go about that process. The book is Marketplace Dignity: Transforming How We Engage With Customers Across Their Journey, published by Wharton School Press.

Cait, let’s start out with what is happening, why it’s happening, and why this issue of marketplace dignity is so important right now.

Cait Lamberton: There are a lot of large-scale factors that make this particularly salient to people. We know that when people, for example, feel that their choice is constrained in the marketplace, they’re going to do everything they can to get it back. If they feel that they are not treated fairly compared to others, they’re going to do everything they can to restore that.

Because the marketplace is so transparent right now, it’s easy to know whether somebody is getting something better than you. The likelihood is they’re going to brag about it on social media. People become very sensitive to disparate treatment, to a loss of agency, and perhaps even to a loss of voice because we live in a marketplace where now everyone has a megaphone. If everyone has a megaphone, you’re just shouting with everyone else. When those three things are threatened — your agency, your voice, and your sense of fairness — it’s absolutely reasonable to want to restore them.

Loney: How much a challenge is it for companies right now? I would think there are elements of this that they’ve probably dealt with in the past, but having all of them together adds to the pressure.

Lamberton: I think it is a uniquely challenging time in some senses, but they also have new tools to address them, if they want to do it. It’s interesting. If you Google something like, “Which companies treat their employees or their customers with dignity,” you’ll find a lot of reports about single issues. They’ll say, “This is a company that supports people in the LGBTQ community.” “This is a company that is a strong ally for another group.” “This is a company that affirms older employees.”

But as a systematic approach, I don’t think we actually see that very often. They have multilevel threats to dignity, but they tend to have these ad hoc responses. Yes, it’s a unique challenge. But there’s also a unique set of opportunities that they can take advantage of.

Loney: You talk about that megaphone that a lot of consumers have. I’m guessing part of that takes the form of social media, but obviously other platforms are out there as well.

Lamberton: I think social media is the dominant platform right now. But that doesn’t mean that consumers don’t sometimes at least feel empowered to grab the megaphone in person, to take the attention that they want to. Again, it’s a fundamental human need to feel heard and seen. And the more frustrated people become, the more they’re going to find a way to force you to see them and force you to hear them.

Loney: Is this becoming a must-have for a lot of companies? That you have to have this thought process, this formula in your mix?

Lamberton: I think that if they don’t, they’re in danger. And I think they’re missing out on a differentiator. To the extent that any differentiator is a must-have, then yes. I actually think it’s far more important than, for example, being in the right place on social issues. Those things are going to move around. That’s going to continually change. And a company that is chasing whatever’s popular socially is going to have a hard time.

But what we argue in the book is that this is a matter of how you structure the experience. It’s not just about being nice, and it’s not just about being liberal or conservative or somewhere in the middle. It’s just about the decisions you make in the architecture of your experience. You’re going to make the decisions anyway. It’s a matter of whether you make them taking dignity into account or not.

We asked consumers to rank the importance of different things that they can experience in their interactions with a firm. Dignity always comes in second. It comes in second to the objective value that you get from your interaction with a firm. But what falls way down the list are the things that we talk about all the time, like whether the firm is sustainable, whether the firm aligns with my political values. What’s second is whether I’m treated with respect. That comes up in the data over and over and over again.

Loney: Because the mindset of each individual consumer can be different, companies have to be prepared for a variety of options along the way, correct?

Lamberton: There’s more uniformity on some of this than you might think. I think that idiosyncratic individual preferences take us back to things like political ideology or social issues. That’s a whole different topic that’s quite challenging to handle in and of itself. But what we find in our data is that those three things, everybody values them. In different contexts, to a different extent. But people want to feel some control over what’s happening to them. And that’s pretty universal. They like to make choices.

Of course, you have to think about how to craft that so that people make choices that are helpful. No one likes feeling trapped. People like to feel seen and heard. Or the converse of that is they like to choose when to be seen and heard. That’s a universal preference.

One of the earliest things we learned developmentally is that we like things to be fair. You know, “That kid has a toy, and I don’t have a toy. And that’s not fair. And I’m not OK with it.” In a way, I think we would argue that designing for dignity is a much safer approach than, “Let’s give everyone exactly what they want and try to be all things to all people.” You’re not going to get that right. But I think you can get this right at a scalable level.

Dignity Is Essential Throughout the Consumer Journey

Loney: That’s why the component of this being the entire journey of a consumer plays so much into the process, doesn’t it?

Lamberton: It does. Because if you only do one part, you look very inauthentic. Oh, congratulations, you’re going to allow a lot of dignity before the consumer makes a decision. So they come into your store and you do something really respectful, like give them decompression space, don’t overload them with pushy sales tactics. They purchase. Everyone’s happy. They feel recognized.

Then after the fact, you bombard them with information and don’t let them disengage from you. We all know these stories of the subscriptions you can’t get out of without 50 clicks. You respected dignity before, then you want to retain them so badly that you take away agency. And you don’t listen to them anymore, as far as what their preferences are. If you do that, you’re not telling the whole story. And consumers will anchor on that part where you blew it. So yes, you ideally think about it all the way through the process.

Loney: It feels like there’s a little bit of a balancing act. You don’t want to overdo it with the consumer. You want to hit that that right level of connection and dignity so that you can have a great relationship back and forth.

Lamberton: Yeah, and I think it’s not as hard as people might think it is. What we find is even little, small amounts of choice, they mean something to consumers. They notice even a change in the language that you use. It doesn’t necessarily have to cost a lot more.

One of the companies that I worked with on this topic a few years ago was very concerned that this was just expensive. “We’ve got to retrain all of our employees to be nicer.” That’s not really the case. It’s about setting up structures that allow choice and give people voice or allow them privacy along the way. When that structure exists, the consumer can navigate it. But they’re pretty sensitive to small changes. You don’t need to rebuild your entire business, necessarily. You just need to be thoughtful about each piece of it.

Dignity in the Age of AI

Loney: I was going to ask you whether there’s a permanence to this concept that they have, or whether there’s a fluidity to it?

Lamberton: It’s funny. If you look at a lot of company websites — especially in health care, pharmaceuticals, to a lesser extent, some other industries — you’re going to see the word dignity. It’s going to come up. They’ve built it into their stated purpose. They’ve taken it on as something that they permanently want to pursue. But then the next step, which is systematically building it into everything the patient, the physician, the caregiver experiences, that is the connection that’s only partially made.

Another thing that’s fluid about it is that it may have to change across cultures. We’ve done some work where we’ve looked at, for example, what dignity means for people who are in Nigeria, as opposed to people who are in India, as opposed to people who are in the United States. In India and the U.S., it’s fairly similar. It has a lot to do with being seen and heard and having agency. You see those things come up over and over again.

Our Nigerian respondents, though, talked a lot more about being treated fairly as part of a group, because their group identity was extremely important. We also found that consumers in the U.S. were, of the three groups, least sensitive to the affirmation of dignity. If you affirm their dignity, in some cases, they actually feel like, “OK, if you respect me, I’m going to ask for even more from you.” Which could be an opportunity for firms to grow, too. But our consumers from other regions sometimes said, “If you respect me, I might give you some grace if I don’t get everything I want.” There’s a substitute and a complement relationship that may be fluid across different kinds of markets.

Loney: There’s probably multiple reactions that you will get from the consumer. If you don’t deliver, there are going to be some consumers that are going to be mad. They’ll go away from the company. But as you said, some may have a little bit of anger or angst towards the firm.

Lamberton: There can definitely be heterogeneity. What I’ll say is, on average, I don’t think you make anything worse. Especially if you incorporate agency. Early on in the process, if you say to consumers, “Listen, we can allow you a lot of choice and a lot of control, or we can help you out more along the way. Which would you prefer?” Oh, look. Now, somebody can say, “Listen, I don’t want to think about everything, I don’t want all the choice.” And you just simply send them down one pathway or another.

We may get to a point where AI will actually be able to tell who are the people who value agency at every step, and who are the people that are happier to have a more supported experience. But right now, it’s also not a hard thing to ask. And people tend to self-report this kind of thing.

Loney: We’re learning so much about how AI is going to be impacting what we do on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. Are companies already starting to think about AI in this component as well?

Lamberton: Yeah. There’s a big movement that is focused on data dignity. And these folks are pointing out again that representation, which is one of these three pieces of dignity, also means not being seen when you don’t want to be seen. Which would mean, I don’t want to be included in that data set that’s used to predict everyone’s preferences. Or certainly, we would want our data to be used in ways that we feel good about.

Otherwise, what’s basically happening is our voice is being co-opted by a firm. And people do not like that experience. I think, too, there’ll be regulations about that will slowly work their way through the courts. But we do need to be sensitive to the way that consumers are seen and heard. And the extent to which they feel that their control is being eroded by the way that artificial intelligence is used to connect with them.

When we connect with a person, I think we’re all very aware that at the end of the day, we get to walk away. But if everywhere we go in the environment there is some AI reaching out to us, we lose agency. We’re going to have to learn a lot about how to use that in a way that doesn’t make humans feel as though they’re devalued relative to technology.