When I was twelve years old I played on a baseball team that went to the Virginia State Little League tournament. My team comprised of the best players from our local league teams and I was excited to be selected for the team. While I had a decent season on my own team, it was clear from the outset that I wasn’t going to be a starting player on the new team of all-stars.
All the positions I could have played on this new team were filled with guys who were better than me so the coaches put me in right field. That’s where you put the people who don’t really have a role on the team.
One day during practice the other right fielder started picking on me. I’m not sure what I did to him. It wasn’t like I was playing ahead of him. Whatever the case I remember that he would throw rocks from the warning track at me and say things that 12 year old boys say when they’re trying to belittle someone. For the most part I blew it off. It only happened a few times so it never escalated to a point where my parents or the coaches noticed anything unusual, but I would never forget it. Moments like those have a way of burning into you memory unlike most anything else.
Our team didn’t advance beyond the first round of the state tournament and as far as I was concerned it was time to get on with my summer. I heard that the bully moved away and I never thought about him again.
In the years that followed I continued playing baseball in an older league made up of 13-15 year olds. Midway through my 15 year old season the bully moved back to our town. I didn’t know he was back until the day I saw him on the opposing team warming up to pitch before the game.
That Moment When It Changes
I don’t think I’ll forget that moment when I looked up and noticed that the former bully was standing on the pitcher’s mound about to start the game. I hadn’t thought about the guy in three years but there he was and in a few minutes he was going to be throwing a ball at me. Did he remember me? I sure remembered him.
If I ever wanted to hit a baseball hard and far it was that day in that moment. When I stepped up to the plate I knew I wanted to make a statement.
He threw a fastball down the middle and I remember seeing the ball fly off my bat right back at him. Before I knew it, I heard a crack, a yelp and saw the ball take an immediate right hand turn to roll 60 feet over to the first baseman. The first baseman picked up the ball and stepped on the bag. I was out. So was the former bully. I hit a hard line drive that shattered his knee. I don’t think he played the rest of the season.
No More Little Guy
I remember walking back to the dugout feeling far less remorseful than I should have and being simultaneously shocked by what I had just done and the irony of the event.
In hindsight it almost seems like a scene from a movie where the little kid grows up and faces the bully in a moment of vindication. Somewhere in my head I think there’s a John Williams soundtrack playing when I recall that day. The little guy wasn’t so little anymore and that changed everything.
And that’s the reality of the business world today too. There was a moment when the customer grew up and got into the game. I don’t know exactly when it happened but somewhere in the last decade as the Internet evolved the customer grew up and learned how to play the game that only marketers thought they could play.
The Game Has Changed
Not only are they in the game but they’re good. They have power. They have strength. They have endurance. They have the ability to create their own opposing team. There is no little guy anymore. They can shatter your knee if you’re not paying attention or you don’t remember them or if they remember how you were less than kind or helpful previously.
The world of consumer engagement today is exciting and dangerous. It’s exciting because you can do things that have never been possible before. It’s dangerous because you have to show a level of respect and understanding for what they’re capable of. They have more power than you may be giving them credit for.
Play the game but play it wisely. Play respectfully. Play generously. And for heaven’s sake make sure you’re playing today’s version of the game. The consumer is. Your competition probably is too.