Are your Customers the goal…Or just part of the machine?


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We sometimes have an officious way of dealing with our Customers, almost as though they’re the problem that we have to deal with. As Customers ourselves, we witness this all the time, and surely as CX professionals and leaders we’re also more aware of it when we see it. It’s interesting, then, that it ever happens in the first place, considering the positions we hold and the authority we wield.

For instance, if you wanted to come up with the worst thing you can ever say to your Customer, you’d be hard pressed to beat: “Your ticket has been closed” when the issue hasn’t been resolved. And yet, don’t we get that all the time?

I recently had a minor issue with a product and went online to submit a question about it. I receive two emails three days later in rapid succession:

The first email I received stated in toto: “Our records indicate your support case number [XXX] was recently closed. We hope the support you received was up to your expectations and would love to hear back from you. We hope the support you received met your expectations and we would appreciate your feedback. Please click HERE to complete our customer satisfaction survey.” The all-caps “HERE” was a link to the survey. (We’ll not go into the atrocious wording of the email, there are graver errors afoot here.)

The email that followed four minutes later (yes, I received the email announcing the closure of the ticket and the invitation to take the survey before I’d received anything from their service center) made matters worse because it was of basically no use or help in addressing my issue.

Why do we treat our Customers this way? I have a theory, and it predates even my experiences in the CX field.

When I was just starting out in my Process Engineering practice, I was surprised to find how much waste existed in systems based on people putting more stock in the processes themselves and not enough emphasis on the outcomes…the purpose for those processes in the first place. (Think, as Simon Sinek might say, we put too much thought into the How and not enough on the Why.) People would perform tasks in a particular order from a list regardless of the value added by doing so (and in fact, usually not even considering the value added) simply because it was the next box to check in the process. Oftentimes a step in the process was only there because the tool being used required it, not because it was part of the solution. In some of the more egregious instances, there were steps left over from legacy tools that weren’t even being used in the process anymore. My Lean Six Sigma fellow practitioners are nodding along right now, I know.

There’s a similar thing that often occurs in the CX realm. Customers themselves are actually viewed at times as simply parts of the process, instead of how they should be seen: The reason we’re doing all this in the first place. When the Customers aren’t the center of what we’re doing, they tend to become nothing more than another cog in the machine; another task that needs to be accomplished, a box to tick. And often as a result, they end up getting caught in the gears of that machine.

I’m sure in my experience above that the agent who replied to my inquiry wanted my issue resolved and for me to have a pleasant experience as a Customer. But he was likely hamstrung by lacking the enablement of proper tools, processes, and systems to help me. In the culture of this organization, I was seen as just another ticket that had to be cranked through the system that day. For them, the system was paramount, not the Customer. He probably did what he was supposed to do (reply to the Customer that there’s really no way to help him, close the ticket, move on to the next) and got his food pellet for having rung the bell, metaphorically. That the emails got sent out in the wrong order is likely a flaw in the handshake between their various CRM systems. That flaw simply makes the problem with their approach all the more easy to spot. It highlights that I, as a Customer, am not important to them.

What’s more, the pretty negative feedback I offered them probably came as quite a bit of a surprise to whomever saw it (if anybody bothered to look) considering it’s likely that, based on the (process) metrics, everything was done properly…all the steps were executed. That’s because the process is the goal instead of a good Customer experience. “Quality” to them is defined more by following the process than by delivering a good experience.

Is your organization putting the Customer at the center of your process? Or is your Customer simply a part of it, providing inputs just like every other element?

(Originally Published 20200827)

– LtCol Nicholas Zeisler, CCXP, LSSBB, CSM
– Principal, Zeisler Consulting

Nicholas Zeisler, CCXP, LSSBB
I’m a Customer Experience executive, certified Process Improvement professional, Agile Scrum Master, dynamic educator, change management strategist, and in-demand business and leadership coach. I've worked from the inside and from the outside; in organizations large and small; public sector and private; from oil and gas to technology to non-profit (with lots in between too). I've seen a lot, but I haven't seen it all.


  1. Our consulting and research experience has repeatedly shown that, if organizations are not truly stakeholder-centric, situations such as you’ve described can often occur. In companies that focus on satisfaction, treating value delivery processes in a superficial, passive, and reactive manner, the customer is, yes, very little more than a gear in the machine of business. Any VOC data they generate will be used to reinforce such methods, with no intent, or invested resources, to improve customer benefit. In such enterprises, by the way, the employee does not fare much better.

    How companies perform for stakeholders can be determined in terms of where they place on a spectrum of centricity and focus, It can be called naive at the low end, to natural at the high end. However it is defined (and clearly it is naive in your example), stakeholder-focused companies are obsessive in delivering value. Your example company is not.

  2. Countless research studies have demonstrated that the biggest difference between successful companies and the also rans is where they put customers in their priority. Let’s look at two successful companies-Wal-Mart and Amazon. Neither are perfect but it would be hard to argue with their bottomline success. Sam Walton, found of Wal-Mart said, “The customer can fire everyone from the chairman of the board on down simply be choosing to spend his or her money elsewhere.” Clearly a plea for customer-centric. Jeff Bezos said, “We know that customers are perceptive and smart. We take it as an article of faith that customers will notice when we work hard to do the right thing, and that by doing so again and again, we will earn trust.” Again, a customer-centric priority. Peter Drucker wisely said, “The purpose of an organization is to create and retain a customer.” What could be more clear?

  3. Nicholas, How right. People do not care, really about customers. They are necessary evils to some!
    My new book to come Customer Value Starvation can Kill talks about all this

  4. Your example brings to mind the old adage that “when the process (bureaucracy) becomes more important than the solution (customer satisfaction), everybody loses”. It is certainly not the mark of a customer centric organization. I am surprised that they did not hide behind the pandemic as an excuse.

    More problematic was your comment that your negative feedback probably came as a surprise (if anybody bothered to look at it). This is also not the mark of a customer centric organization. A quick glance at the 2020 Customer Rage survey shows that more than 50% of complainants never got an answer from the organization to their complaint. What does this say about the sad state of affairs in CX that more than half of the companies are not even in the running to become customer centric?

    Clearly, there is still a lot of work still to be done.

  5. Clearly, what the customer desires/wants/needs is too often not at the forefront of companies. The less choice customer has the more prevalent outcomes like the ones you describe occur. I usually help my clients by making them think about what their customer (might be an internal one, too) wants to achieve.

    Re the satisfaction survey: I would think that it got used – to the disadvantage of the service agent, sincerely.

  6. It’s an easy trap for businesses to fall into: obsessing over the process versus ensuring good outcomes. Little wonder. Big Data and analytics have empowered managers to refine their scrutiny of employee-customer interactions down to the keystroke. Service interactions are timed to the second, and employees are rated on their “efficiency.” At the same time, managers have sucked personal initiative and creativity out of customer engagement through penalizing employees for deviating from The Process or script, and for not hitting their assigned productivity targets. I somewhat understand the rationale. Without stringent formulas for customer interactions, businesses risk volatility in customer experience outcomes. And volatility is the enemy of planning and financial performance. Maybe some executives believe that it’s better to be kinda-sorta-pretty-much-OK at CX than it is to be wildly horrible, fantastically wonderful, and all things in between, depending on who handles the service call. I’m not sure.

    Still, based on the example you provided in which the company deemed your problem ‘resolved’ before actually addressing it, I see a hubris endemic in almost every organization: that technology only “solves” problems. They fail to understand that every solution causes new difficulties to emerge. How can any company expect to improve its CX without recognizing – and addressing – that reality?

  7. I’ve been very lucky lately as I’ve had occasion to call customer service: most of my interactions have been handled well and with empathy, even though I seem to spend longer on hold waiting in queue. As the current pandemic changes the way we live and work, companies and organizations who are able to put the customer first and retain loyalty have a better chance of surviving.

  8. Process centricity provides a false level of confidence, to both the individual agent and to the organization. As Nicholas points out in this post the customer is either the center of the process or a part of it…I might add that they are at the center of the process or the victim of it or even that ‘you can’t see the customer for the processes’.
    A good process is a ‘living’ entity and needs to be reviewed and modified everytime we have a chance to improve it and by extension improve the customer experience.

  9. Per Colin Taylor’s response, narrowly-focused, restrictive process-centricity is often the mark of an organization which has a universally passive, reactive, even grudging approach to customer value delivery. In these companies, employees do not have the encouragement, enablement, empowerment, training, or resources to do this. So, the enterprise, customers, and employees all lose.

  10. We have to teach employees and managers to go beyond processes and create value (doing good and improving the well-being of others)

  11. Could not agree more, Nicholas. There is something really ironic in using words like “personalize,” “engage,” “relationship,” and similar used in the same sentence as “automation,” and “systems/processes.” It’s about PEOPLE, and nothing else. While I have no problem with companies using data and all the other digital shiny objects to make themselves better at what they do, you cannot replace building customer loyalty with machines, and imposing digital options and self-service on unwilling customers.

    Does that mean that I reject all forms of automation? Of course not. I’m one of Amazon’s biggest supporters, and my bank account reflects this. But I also know that if something goes wrong, within seconds I can talk to a live human being instead of a “chat bot.” And Colin, you are right: process centricity provides a false sense of confidence to senior managers.


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