Life must have been a lot simpler back in the Middle Ages. All the relationships you had were with people you saw and interacted with almost every day.
Because of this, everyone was expected to behave in ways where they could be relied on – to do what they said they would, and to do the right thing. Trust was a valuable currency, and for anyone who broke this trust, the consequences were public, and frequently brutal.
Our daily bread
Take bakers, for example. In the Middle Ages, bread was sold by weight rather than quantity. Bakers who sold their customers short could face a number of different punishments, ranging from fines to being put in the village stocks, with passers-by encouraged to throw things. If they did it again, they would be thrown out of the village.
So, to avoid accusations of fiddling their measurements and selling underweight bread, bakers would routinely throw in one extra loaf or portion, to make absolutely sure their customers were getting at least the amount asked for. This is why a ‘baker’s dozen’ adds up to 13.
Going further to earn a crust
I write this because, over the last 150 years, the relationship between suppliers and consumers has changed enormously. The Industrial Revolution ultimately turned a business from being something local (and therefore very relationship-based) into something much more scalable (and less personal).
Companies were suddenly able to serve customers not only in the next village, but in the next county, then the next country and, ultimately, on the other side of the world. There are all kinds of benefits to this, with customer choice and lower costs the most obvious. However, there is, in my view, one massive disadvantage.
As a business gets further from its customers, I think there’s a real risk that its ethics or morality declines. We’ve seen this in a number of high profile corporate scandals over the last few decades.
These companies managed to get away with it for so long because there wasn’t an obvious way for customers to hold them to account in the same way as they used to be in the Middle Ages. The equivalent of being put in stocks, or thrown out of the village, didn’t really exist.
But I think business is about to go full circle.
Always ‘on’, always accountable
The world is now so connected, and the customer has so much power compared to what they had 10-20 years ago, that businesses will have to do the right thing to be successful.
The businesses likely to struggle most with this transition will be the ones that have spent the last few decades thinking of themselves as the adult in the relationship. These are typically companies operating in sectors which are highly complex, with big barriers to entry (and therefore the wall these companies build around themselves is even higher).
I think we’ll end up in a world where the companies that truly succeed will be the ones that successfully marry both of these worlds. These businesses will have all the benefits of scale, efficiency and lower costs (and they’ll serve customers from across the globe) but they’ll behave in a way that makes them seem local.
Acting with integrity
When something goes wrong, they will apologise, and they’ll mean it. And, just like the bakers of old, they’ll recognise the value of always giving their customers more than they asked for. They will understand that the long-term relationship is far more important than any single transaction.
If we’re looking to the future, there’s no harm in learning from the past. People haven’t changed that much in the last few hundred years. And when it comes to relationships in business, trust is still absolutely everything.